There is wide debate about the cultural role of melancholia. American academic Eric Wilson writes of the dangers of bland candy-coloured happiness brought about, he says by swallowing pills. In Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy (2008) Wilson asks what we are to make of the 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, for the innocuous smile? What fosters this desperate contentment?’
What would be the effect of ‘annihilating melancholia’ – that ‘major cultural force, a serious inspiration to invention, the muse behind much art and poetry’?
When Wilson asks what it means to ‘desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic’, replacing tragedy with a bland happiness, he does distinguish between depression and melancholia. Depression is debilitating, he says, and ‘causes apathy in the face of this unease, lethargy approaching total paralysis, an inability to feel much of anything one way or another.’
In contrast, melancholia is a response to unease, which ‘results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing’. He argues that melancholia is not aberrant and that the problem is with (America’s) notion of happiness:
happiness as immediate gratification, happiness as superficial comfort, happiness as static contentment.’
This notion of happiness, Wilson argues, leads to a one-sided life, to ‘bliss without discomfort, bright noon with no night’. Wilson fears a world without the glories of Beethoven’s later work, of Handel’s’ Messiah, and argues that it is a truth that life is a struggle and from that struggle comes raw beauty and truth. Without that disquiet and struggle, without recognising that it is in our dying that we live, we are not alive.
I guess Wilson is lucky he doesn’t have to diagnose illness and prescribe an appropriate remedy. I am not sure I would be able to distinguish melancholia from depression – given how differently each individual responds to the illness. This debate only has meaning because medicine has given us a choice: pills can change the nature of that mental darkness.
Psychiatrist (and self-confessed depressive in the non-clinical pessimistic sense) Peter Kramer does not struggle with this debate. In Listening to Prozac and Against Depression, he argues that depression causes neurological damage leading to poor life outcomes, and that it is a medical practitioner’s duty to treat such an illness early to prevent further deterioration. Kramer rails against the romanticism attached to depression: we would not even argue about treating damaging physical conditions such as diabetes. Why, he asks, would we treat depression any differently – its neurological signature is evident in the brain – for what other illness would we recommend allowing the damage to continue? Perhaps Kramer is less worried than Wilson about the state of the world.
Wilson’s argument, I think, goes beyond melancholia. He is mourning the beige language of banality that covers debate and critical thinking. He sees a world of bland beauty and complacency – bleached, air-brushed women, buff young men drunk on their spray-tanned six-packs, an interior decorator telling you whether your cat matches your cushions, the perfect menu, ingredients and instructions provided by TV celebrity chef – a world that always has a risk-free path to an easy answer. The internet provides a globalised flood of instructive uniformity, a ridicule of difference and a breathless exposure of struggle, all of which could be resolved if only you were paleo.
In this, I agree with Wilson. Discomfort, ugliness and struggle are not strangers but wise companions. We grow through embracing the difficult and the frightening truths about ourselves and the world we live in. I do object to that notion of depression (or some other illness or misfortune) as a ‘gift’ – any good that comes out of pain is hard earned. But I wonder about living with an intimate darkness – Wilson’s melancholia sounds romantic. I don’t write darkness when I am down, I live in darkness. Darkness is a wordless place.
Heather Bauchop is a Dunedin writer and researcher.
This is Part 3 of a four-part essay by Heather Bauchop on this topic. Read the essay in sequence:
- Part 1 – Pursuing darkness: musing on depression and creativity
- Part 2 – Prozac and creativity
- Part 3 – An obsession with happiness?
- Part 4 – The intimate complexities of sufferers