Against Against Happiness

One of my book groups was supposed to meet today to discuss Eric Wilson’s Against Happiness, but it got postponed, so I’ll have another couple weeks to stew over this book’s flaws. No, I did not like it one bit (first thoughts here). The idea sounded interesting, if not entirely new — that Americans are obsessed with happiness to the detriment of our souls and our deeper imaginative, creative selves — but the execution failed. At times I got so annoyed with the book I found myself wanting to defend happiness. Can it really be so bad??

The problems begin with the writing itself. It’s overwritten, florid, occasionally verging on the incomprehensible. There are too many passages like this:

The American dream might be a nightmare. What passes for bliss could well be a dystopia of flaccid grins. Our passion for felicity hints at an ominous hatred for all that grows and thrives and then dies — for all those curious thrushes moving among autumn’s brownish indolence, for those blue dahlias seemingly hollowed with sorrow, for all those gloomy souls who long for clouds above high windows.

I sort of see what he means here — the demand for constant happiness can flatten out experience and make it bland — and yet does happiness really mean that one does not notice thrushes and dahlias and the beauty of clouds? The writing too often veers toward bad poetry, the sort of thing angsty adolescents might compose. It’s also repetitive, and I couldn’t discern what made one chapter different from another. Against Happiness would have been much better as an essay rather than a book; it feels bloated at a mere 150 pages.

A friend told me that Wilson incorporates short biographies of famous depressives, and my first response was to be suspicious of these, thinking that I’d be bored by the familiar list of people like Virginia Woolf and Vincent Van Gogh whose depression may have contributed to their ability to produce great art. And yet when I sat down to read the book, I came across these sections with relief, as they helped to ground the writing a little bit. But even so, these sections are the familiar, clichéd portraits of famous depressives I was afraid I was going to find.

The argument can be vague as well. He assumes we know what he means by the difference between happiness and joy and by his talk of “polarities,” as in:

What is existence if not an enduring polarity, an endless dance of limping dogs and lilting crocuses, starlings that are spangled and frustrated worms?

and:

to be alive is to realize the universe’s grand polarity. Life grows out of death, and death from life; turbulence breeds sweet patterns, and order dissolves into vibrant chaos.

All this sounds grand, but what does it mean? I can get a vague emotional sense of what he means, but not a concrete logical understanding.

He works with two categories of people, the melancholic and the happy, that are vastly oversimplified. At times I feel like I know the kinds of people he’s talking about when he talks about “happy types,” the people who look for an uplifting lesson in everything they read, for example, or people who don’t have the imagination to understand the suffering that someone else is going through. But most of the time the “happy types” he describes don’t seem real to me. My guess is that many people, certainly more than Wilson claims, will acknowledge the tragic side of life, even if they need to be pressed, and they’ll agree that the search for happiness is ultimately bound to be futile. He makes much of the statistic that 85% of Americans claim to be happy, but he (or perhaps the study that generated the statistic) doesn’t define what people mean by that claim. If I were asked whether I consider myself happy, I might be among the 85% that said yes, although I don’t consider myself a “happy type.” I would probably say yes, though, because even though I suffer from melancholy and maybe even mild depression now and then, I have a good life and I have joyful moments and I feel like I’m doing okay even though life is so harsh and our existence ultimately doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I’m muddling along, and that’s about the most anybody can hope for, and so I’d call that a kind of happiness.

The book has an uncomfortable feeling of self-congratulation, of pleasure taken in the fact that the author is part of an elite group of people who aren’t deluded like the vast majority of idiots out there. Maybe I’m too optimistic about what “most people” are like, but this attitude doesn’t sit well with me.

I did feel a moment of recognition when Wilson described how the happy types long for complete control over their lives; they don’t like the idea that a sad event can occur at any moment or that their lives could be turned upside down in an instant. I recognized myself in his description, as I am always looking for just the right way of doing things — the right balance of work and life, the perfect job, the perfect place to live, the right way of organizing my day, the right balance of social and solitary time. I want to feel perfectly organized and on top of things so that nothing takes me by surprise to cause any busyness or stress or worry. Obviously this is impossible, but I still hope, somehow, to make things perfect. I would be better off learning to see, as Wilson recommends, that the stability I long for is really a sort of premature death, and that living means constant change.

I wanted to have more moments of recognition like this one, however, and was disappointed. I’ll have to look to other writers for a more convincing celebration of melancholy.

You can read Hobgoblin’s take on the book here.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

8 responses to “Against Against Happiness

  1. Oh no. Now I don’t want to read the book at all. I bet though your group will have a good discussion about it though! And you can be relieved that it was only 150 pages :)

  2. I usually like really descriptive prose, but I’m not entirely sure about ‘flaccid grins’ or ‘lilting crocuses’. That might have been a bit much even for me. Is the author American or European? The premise sounds good, the execution not so much. Too bad the book didn’t pan out, but I bet your group will have a good discussion.

  3. Dark Orpheus

    I am now even less inclined to pick this book up. I would describe myself as happy – but I’m probably not the author’s idea of a happy person. I am more drawn to the darker, more melancholic aspects of literature and art. But – I am happy. I don’t deny the lack of control over my life – but part of my “happiness” is often recognising that things can be, or have been much worse.

    The way I see it, happiness rises from a certain familiarity with the melancholic — or the tragic.

    Does he see the two as so distinctly different that they are mutually exclusive? If so, I disagree.

  4. TJ

    I love your reviews, negative or positive. You do such a great job of helping the reader see how you’ve come to your conclusions. I started this book, but put it aside. The passages you selected do a good job of showing the book’s over-written, self-congratulatory, angsty (great word)–but in a somewhat clueless way–character. And I really like your point about the smugness writers sometimes have in relation to the maladies they describe (but that they don’t themselves participate in). Finally, I couldn’t agree more that an essay would have done the job. Thanks!

  5. It sounds like your description of your own feelings on happiness in this post are more successful than this book. It also definitely sounds like an essay urged into a book. I hate that because so often the less said the more meaningful.

    Sorry that you disliked the book, but I did enjoy reading your review.

  6. Thank you for giving me one to take off the TBR list. Having not read the book, and therefore, having no right to comment on “happy types,” I will anyway. I have a friend who insists he knows people who sound like the “happy types” you note the book describes. One thing I’m always telling him is that if you really scratch the surfaces of those people, you’ll discover it’s really just their way of coping with the world, that they aren’t necessarily more happy than those of us who are more likely to call a spade a spade than to pretend it’s a golden arrow, and most of them have at least one trusted person in their lives with whom they will call a spade a spade, not quite so delusional as he seems to make it sound. In the sense that he seems to be saying that, through their need to control, “happy types” might be in denial, maybe my observations somewhat agree with the author, and I might be interested in that much of what he has to say. But from your description, I’m sure you’re right that this book should have been an essay, not a book, and there’s nothing more annoying than reading a book-length work that should have been an essay (says the “Not-So-Happy-Type-Spade-Caller,” who, like you, would definitely describe herself as “happy,” if asked).

    P.S. I bet the discussion will be great!

  7. Oh my God, what a ghastly writing style! I guess you’d have to be against happiness to write quite so pretentiously ;)

  8. Stefanie, yes, and they were 150 fast pages — but not fast enough! No, I don’t recommend this one :)

    Danielle — he’s an American author — an English professor in fact! I suppose being an English professor is no guarantee that a person will write well …

    Dark Orpheus — yeah, he doesn’t even contemplate that a genuine kind of happiness can come out of experiences of melancholy. I think his definition of happiness is much too narrow — or, really, that he’s not precise enough in his terms. He sees joy or an intense feeling of life coming out of melancholy, but he doesn’t call this happiness.

    TJ — thank you! I think you were smart to set the book aside — it doesn’t get any better, so you weren’t missing anything. Self-congratulatory is a great way to describe his tone — very unpleasant!

    Zoesmom — thank you; yes, little more painful to read than an essay padded into a book — all that repetition and sloppiness!

    Emily — glad to help with the TBR pile! You are right on in what you say about the book — he doesn’t even consider what would happen if you look behind people’s perky cheerfulness and question whether it’s real. He doesn’t consider the issue of denial either, which would have made me feel better about the whole thing. Instead what he offers is two simple categories. Most dissatisfying.

    Litlove — ghastly indeed! It’s almost enough to make me want to write my own book on the subject — to see if I could do better.

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