Melancholy or miserablism?

Edvard Munch – “Melancholy” (1891)

The essay by Eric Wilson I wrote about yesterday has attracted further comment. This has in turn prompted me to add a few more thoughts of my own.

First came Katy Evans-Bush, who quoted a lengthy passage from Wilson’s essay which she says swells her heart with joy. The quote includes the following:

“Are some people lying, or are they simply afraid to be honest in a culture in which the status quo is nothing short of manic bliss? Aren’t we suspicious of this statistic? Aren’t we further troubled by our culture’s overemphasis on happiness? Don’t we fear that this rabid focus on exuberance leads to half-lives, to bland existences, to wastelands of mechanistic behavior?”

Peter Ryley’s heart didn’t swell with joy on reading these words. He regards Wilson’s thinking as “Catholicism transposed”, and goes on to point out that suffering does not automatically ennoble:

“Sorrow can breed justice, but it can also beget arbitrary hatred and revenge, allied to a complete indifference to the suffering of others.”

That point is very well made, but I’m not so sure about the reference to Catholicism. The Catholic Church could take just about any human characteristic and make it pathological.

Wilson’s essay I find interesting, if in places a little too flowery. And the inclusion of Keats’ “Ode on melancholy” is a joy. But I do have some problems with this critique of happiness.

For one thing, I object to the comments on depression. This is a disease, which, even in its milder forms, can have a seriously negative impact on quality of life. There may be a correlation between depression and artistic genius, but it is a logical fallacy to think that an artist need be depressed in order to create great art. Yes, we could do without the mass-consumption of seratonin-inhibiting happy pills that numb the brain. But tolerate depression?

People can be content, even happy, and still be fully cognisant of their and others’ reality, suffering and all. They can be both melancholic and joyful at the same time.

Eric Wilson can speak for himself. Our vision of the world is our own, and we should avoid projecting it onto others. It may be obvious to all but the autistic that some people hide behind “painted grins”. On the other hand, some adopt forced scowls in an attempt to look serious and sophisticated. The majority probably reflect their inner selves, to varying degrees.

I do think Wilson is onto something, but his argument rests partly on the straw man of “American happiness”, and it has a whiff of the miserablist about it.