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?
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.