Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Annihilating Melancholia

It would not be a lie to say that most people would classify me as negative or even pessimistic. Even if they chose to refrain from those descriptors, not many would say that I ever exuded happiness. And they are right I am not one who craves being happy, and one might say that I would have a hard time even describing happiness or even what happy is. In fact a group of my friends have compiled a list of things that I hate, including: cookies, or cake without the ake as I like to say, why bother (that i dislike cake as well is of no relevance); grass, far too much of the land is covered with this mostly useless greenery, we need plants and flowers that can attract bees and sustain life for more than cows; swimming, get tossed into a pool as a toddler and forced to be on swim team as a kid and you would hate it too; along with many other things that mostly would cause mass indifference or joy in other peoples' lives. I bring this up because one of my friends tried to tie my hatred of things to happiness with the most illogical syllogism I have ever come across: "you hate happiness, but hating makes you happy. It is a vicious circle." It makes for good humor and whatnot, but it is quite untrue. I do not hate happiness, I just find it fleeting.

But even this causes unease in many people. They want me to be happy, as my often sour disposition moves in direct opposition to the way they want to view the world. I can not tell you how many times people have suggested to me that maybe I could benefit from anti depressants. But I am far from depressed. I am not about to take my own life, as I assume some feel my world view suggests. And as much as it troubles me, Shia LeBeouf, an pretty bad actor, has summed up my feelings best when stating why acting was the most important thing in his life: "Happiness isn't worth anything. It's momentary. This is forever."

When I first read that I felt like someone took me out of me for a moment. Then when I used this exact quote to defend myself others would say things like "Nice defeatist attitude. Suicide should cheer you up." Statements like this make my head nearly implode. There should be emotional change in every sane rational individual all the time depending on the situation. Yet to the majority of people my admitting it and embracing it should be cause for suicide? Color me seriously confused. It seems completely insane to me to cling to one emotion against all others. I go through life and take it how it comes. I do not strive to be happy nor pissed off, but during the course of a day i usually get both and everything in between.

And while I have thought of this since then it never really made it to the top of my investigation list until I read an amazing article called In Praise of Melancholy by Eric G. Wilson. The heart of his argument provides a nice bookend to my earlier thoughts on the matter. He claims that in a recent Pew Research study "that almost 85 percent of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least pretty happy." And like him I find this to be shockingly awful. That there are just 15% of people that exist outside the obviously accoutrement filled zone of happiness seems absurd. He takes this further and suggests that as a culture we strive to annihilate melancholia. And rather than embrace this with a marketers fervor (what with self help books and psycho active drugs galore), he sees some deep drastic problems with this. What would challenge us to strive to get better if every one was happy all the time? He focuses on melancholia and its dramatic impact of the artistic spirit and drive. And while I completely agree with him on that, I also wonder where any innovation would come from in a world where everyone smelled roses and bathed in champagne. The shop keeper or office worker who resides unhappily in his/her job creates new products to shift the dullness of repetitive efforts to some new product. Do you think the self correcting type writer was developed in a vacuum or in direct consultation of the steno pool and their frustration and unhappiness with their mistakes?

Yet our culture is bowling towards a world where happiness is essential to exist. How long have we been a Prozac Nation? I have heard countless times of someone behaving like an ostrich by doing their all to avoid bad news. Comments like "oh, I do not even watch the news, it makes me far too sad" are too prevalent through out our entire culture. To this I often sit wanting to bang my head into a wall. How can one convince someone that it is okay to embrace moments of contemplation about events that directly effect others that share our planet. Wilson suggests it is the creation of art (writing, painting, music) that helps lead people to places where they can become aware of their own potential. Potential to not be happy and the potential to leap over it with the realization that there is more to life than a dreary force fed happiness. He suggests when happiness "is no longer viable. We want something more: joy. Melancholia galvanizes us, shocks us to life." While he does not come out and directly say it, he is associating perpetual happiness as a sort of emotional prison. I could not agree more.

While science has forever looked for that device that offers perpetual motion, they have yet to find one. There is a reason for this, anything that starts with out the threat of stopping defies the entire nature of our finite universe. We are but small specks in regards towards things in the magnitude of the universe, and it would do us wonders to remember that and in doing so see that everything is fleeting. To try and dictate a single desirable emotional way of being goes not only against the nature of man, but of the universe. Yet the fact remains, our culture is pressuring the last 15% to acquiesce and join Bobby McFerrin and Clinique on unabashed happiness trips. Yet as Wilson says, "to foster a society of total happiness is to concoct a culture of fear." Which on its face seems contradictory, but is a spot on critique. Happiness is emotional safeness. It is growing up in a nest, letting your wings grow large and plump, but never using them to soar, so you stay in the nest, as you are too happy to want to experience the other. Persistent happiness weighs one down like an anchor and causes fear of that which might shift that happiness even for a second. In a recent email with a friend she told me one of the scariest things she had ever heard:

"At a wedding about 12 years ago in Florida, right before I moved to California. I was talking to a girl I went to high school with that I wasn't close to and she said she couldn't ever imagine leaving Florida because it was "so safe" there. Um, wtf? and she meant emotionally safe, not physically safe. Sigh. I don't want to associate with people who have that mentality."

And thus we have happiness as a trap, the fear of new experience forcing one to stay insulated with the known. And to this all I can say is Gah!!!! In the drive to get everyone happy, we are helping remove discovery from the table. And if we are not inquisitive people, how can we justify our existence? Is just being a consumer enough? In the coming emotional Gattaca like state, that will be exactly it. How and even why will we produce new things when we are happy with what is available? As if our cultural forms are not recycled and reproduced enough as it is, what will happen when melancholy is no more?

Wilson's uses Keats to show how if one is able to embrace and utilize the low portions of ones life, of which Keats had many, the troubles the heart suffers is the stuff that drives our culture forward. Keats saw death first hand, first by his family and then ultimately through his untimely death due to consumption. Yet he found that "to deny death and calamity would be to live only a partial life, one devoid of creativity and beauty. Keats welcomed his death so that he could live." Yet this is exactly what prescribed happiness is all about: denial. That America seems to want to embrace this denial is one of the most troubling things that is facing us in the beginning years of the 21st century.

This feels far from complete, so I am going to try and figure out why Americans are scared to be sad in future posts. For now I will just campaign for others to embrace their melancholia. Note the ticks that make you sad and try and use them to propel your desires and endeavors forward. Remember that "most hide behind a smile because they are afraid of facing the world's complexity, its vagueness, its terrible beauties." A prison of grinning teeth is just as real as cold steal bars. And in the meantime you can find out more of Eric Wilson's fight against traveling down the road to eternal happiness in Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, his new book that has quickly made it on to my must read list.

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