The heart’s dark­est cham­ber

Our fix­a­tion on hap­pi­ness is threat­en­ing to un­der­mine hu­man cre­ativ­ity, writes Luke Slat­tery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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