The heart’s darkest chamber
Our fixation on happiness is threatening to undermine human creativity, writes Luke Slattery
HERODOTUS thought no man could be judged happy until the end of life and the early church, taking its lead from St Augustine, persisted with its version of this post- mortem attitude to happiness: only the soul, in perfect union with God, could find peace without end.
It’s only in the past century — the American century — that the pursuit of happiness has become at once a personal entitlement and a public good, as famously defined by the Declaration of Independence. But has it, with time, become a neurotic fixation, a blinkered obsession, the cause of a great spiritual withering?
This is the question that animates US academic Eric G. Wilson’s spirited defence of human imperfection, Against Happiness, In Praise of Melancholy . A professor of English at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Wilson is worried that sadness may end up as a kind of endangered emotional species. ‘‘ We are eradicating a major cultural force, the muse behind much art and poetry and music,’’ he warns. ‘‘ We are annihilating melancholia.’’
Wilson believes that in our rush to amputate sadness from the human psyche through a variety of means — pharmaceutical, therapeutic, material — we cheat the self out of its full emotional and intellectual range: ‘‘ We must resist the seductions of mindless happiness and somehow hold to our sadness. We must find a way, difficult though it is, to be who we are, sullenness and all.’’
He has a point, though not an entirely original one.
In the early 1990s the British psychologist David Smail argued, in his groundbreaking study The Origins of Unhappiness , that psychological pain is a natural response to powerlessness and lack of influence over one’s world and not, as his profession maintained, an illness waiting for a cure. He wrote: ‘‘ The notion that there is something ‘ wrong’ which the person in distress has to be put ‘ right’ is absolutely central to the medical and psychological disciplines which have grown up in the past 150 years.’’ Suffering, in Smail’s view, can be a source of great insight and, ultimately, empowerment.
But in the 15 years since Smail’s book the war on melancholia has, if anything, redoubled its energies. Mainstream psychotherapy has abandoned its fixation with talking therapy as a meticulous laying bare of the unconscious — artfully skewered by a New Yorker cartoon of a patient on a couch who dreams that one day he might see some results — to embrace the ancient Greek concept of eudemonia, a state of flourishing, or living well.
The positive psychology movement, whose chief evangelist is US psychologist Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness , proposes a thorough renovation of its patients’ cognitive architecture. Optimism, for Seligman, is an acquired skill and wellbeing an eminently attainable goal. Meanwhile the canny and charismatic Dalai Lama, head of the West’s fastest growing religion, has declared happiness to be the purpose of life, achievable through training of the mind.
But is the vanilla ideal of total happiness, to reprise Wilson’s central question, a force for good in literature and the arts, politics and commerce? Two and a half millennia of Tibetan serenity, and not one Tolstoy!
If the human psyche were the calm blue sky envisaged by the happiness industry, we would have no Oedipus the King and no Lear ; no Dantean Inferno; no Faust ; and no inexplicable Dostoevskian crime chasing its own fugitive punishment.
The romantics, had they not suffered with such keen delight, would never have given us their exquisite wintry laments, their odes to melancholy and dejection. The high tradition of Western visual art owes its vitality to equally lugubrious souls. Well before morbidity became an avant- garde aesthetic designed for our edification, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio and Hieronymus Bosch were practising their dark arts.
If Mozart had not known acute anguish, we would not have the great G minor symphony. A contented Beethoven would be no kind of Beethoven at all. Mahler would not be Mahler. And of course without suffering there would be no blues, and no country ballads of which, in the days of vinyl, it used to be said: play them backwards and you get your wife back, your car back, your dog back.
Melancholy, literally black bile, is the psychological machinery of Western culture high and low. And whether it’s Johnny Cash or Franz Kafka, the finished products of this culture, outpourings of the restive soul given aesthetic shape and accessible form — the poem, the ballad, the novel, the play — console us in our dark moments and dissipate the gloom of lone introspection.
Those in earnest pursuit of happiness must first of all negotiate a paradox or two. First, it is manifestly clear that affluence does not mollify melancholy; instead, it intensifies the craving for happiness. The West has never been richer, nor the average span of life more generous. But have the well- to- do ever been more worried?
The second, related paradox reminds us that the more effort we bring to the pursuit of personal happiness, the less likely we are to attain it: true contentment appears to lie in the embrace of some purpose beyond the self. ‘‘ Those only are happy,’’ wrote John Stuart Mill, ‘‘ who have their minds fixed on some object other than own happiness.’’
Hence the apparent absence among traditional communities held together by bonds of family, clan and church of an egoistic discourse of personal happiness. In post- religious societies that privilege the individual over the group and are vulnerable to the derangements of isolation and anomie identified by French sociologist Emile Durkheim, happiness is felt as a gnawing absence, ardently desired, and a salve for loneliness. So we seek more stuff to make us happy and validation in each new credit approval.
To change our lives, and save the planet, we must first change the nature of our desires. It’s an ancient Epicurean notion, never more relevant.
In Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More , from British health and lifestyle writer John Naish, the conundrum of happiness is tackled by way of a consumerist critique. A chatty, if not yappy, writer, Naish blames the culture of ‘‘ more- more’’ for many of our social, spiritual and environmental ills, and proposes a vaguely Zen ‘‘ spiritual sense of selflessness in which we restrain our low- brained, want- more impulses in the wider interest of everyone living on the planet, both today and in the future’’.
Wilson, on the other hand, gives his defence of melancholy a distinctly US inflection. ‘‘ My sense is that most of us have been duped by the American craze for happiness. We might think that we’re leading a truly honest existence, when we’re really just behaving as predictably and artificially as robots, falling easily into well- worn ‘ happy’ behaviours, into the conventions of contentment. Deceived, we miss out on the great interplay of the living cosmos, its luminous gloom, its terrible beauty.’’
There is something to this: every cup of coffee purchased at every US cafe seems to come with the formulaic imperative: ‘‘ Have a nice day.’’ The Portuguese, in contrast, have made an art from saudade . An untranslatable noun, it captures a sweet- and- sour emotion caught somewhere between nostalgia, sadness, unattainable longing and a feeling that life is elsewhere. Perhaps saudade is a universal sentiment that has become for the hapless Portuguese — a people who
Art of sorrow: Melancholy ( 1894- 95) by Edvard Munch founded and lost a glittering world empire — a cherished national trait. From it springs the fado : further proof that culture’s richest wellsprings originate in the heart’s darkest chambers.
Two of the greatest and most individual minds in any language — Michel de Montaigne and Robert Burton — found in their struggle with melancholy the source of their greatness. It’s one of the ironies of Montaigne’s essays and Burton’s vivid compendium, The Anatomy of Melancholy , that their shared burden should be the source of our collective pleasure. For neither man could write a dull page.
Burton and Montaigne, born within four decades of one another in the mid- 16th century, were fortunate in being able to mine the cogitations of the ages: Montaigne from his personal library in Bordeaux, Burton from his college library at Oxford.
Montaigne, who went into a kind of early retirement, planned for himself a princely life of writing and reflection. But his best laid plans were soon unsettled by an increase in melancholic ‘‘ humour’’.
His spirit bolted like a runaway horse; it ‘‘ gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, one after another, without order or fitness, that, so as to contemplate at my ease their oddness and their strangeness, I begin to keep a record of them, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself’’. In order to bridle the unruly mind, he began writing his famous essays, voyages around the self aglow with curious and humane warmth.
Burton’s elephantine analysis of the causes and symptoms of melancholy, its remedies and cures, has none of this casually introspective flavour. It aspires to the authority of science, as understood in the early 17th century, and to reconcile classical erudition with biblical dogma. Melancholy is for Burton one of the many malodorous consequences of man’s Fall: the ‘‘ character of mortality’’, no less.
At the end of several dense chapters on the cures for melancholy — love- melancholy is treatable with a ‘‘ spare diet’’ — Burton fires a salvo across the centuries. The affluence that fuels our desire for happiness may well be the root cause of chronic melancholy. ‘‘ The bodies of such persons as feed liberally and live at ease,’’ in his view, ‘‘ are full of bad spirits and devils.’’
Neither Montaigne nor Burton sought to glamorise melancholy, nor to celebrate suffering as the precondition of their art. This is a particular failing of Wilson’s. He sees suffering as a state to nourish and to foster, a deep calling, ‘‘ a labour in the fields of sadness’’. This is the kind of vocation that only a tenured First World English professor could aspire to.
Burton, who knew his subject rather more deeply and was less inclined to see it as a condition to be coveted, prayed that he ‘‘ may not in this torment dwell!’’ In search of a cure he sought out mirth, music and ‘‘ merry company’’, for ‘‘ the merrier the heart the longer the life’’.
Here, in the parries of wit, the joys of friendship, the liberties of comedy, is a balm for sadness that does not diminish the soul, a cure for melancholy that is also a stimulus for great and enduring art. Aristophanes and Austen drank at this spring, as did Dickens and Dylan. For laughter is not only a democratic medicine that needs no doctor’s prescription, it’s a muse. Luke Slattery is a Sydney- based writer and critic. Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy by Eric G. Wilson is published by Farrar, Straus Giroux, 176pp, 31.95.