I heard about a new book yesterday on NPR: Against happiness: in praise of melancholy by Eric Wilson. The author’s central thesis (as far as I can tell from the interview and the excerpts from the book on NPR’s website) is that melancholy should be seen as a gift rather than a curse. Over the centuries, some of our greatest poets and creative artists have embraced and expressed their inner demons, leaving the world a richer place. He argues that we cannot truly appreciate the sweet without the bitter, the happy without the sad.
While modern trends expect us to treat all depression, even mild to moderate cases, with drugs and therapy, Wilson says that rather than painting a happy face on our world and trying to eradicate melancholia, we should relish the muse of “sweet sadness” and face the “world's complexity, its vagueness, its terrible beauties.”
Wilson acknowledges, by the way, the need for medical intervention in the case of severe depression, but his main point is that life is about more than the pursuit of happiness. I’m intrigued by his argument. It's a well-known (and tragic) fact that many of our most creative artists have suffered from depression, some so profoundly that they took their own lives (Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath to name only a few). Did their dark thoughts steal their poetic visions from us? Or did their dark thoughts help create the poetry in the first place? It’s a question worth asking. Can we experience joy and beauty without suffering pain? Does suffering lead to a depth of understanding and creative vitality that would otherwise be lost in the sameness of contentment?
The idea of creative talent being linked with melancholy was very popular in the 19th century and dates back at least to the Renaissance. The print (above) is Melancholia from Albrecht Dürer. I also briefly mentioned Van Gogh’s famous portrait of the very sad Dr. Gachet at the end of this post here. Note the similarities in the poses and also in Michelangelo’s depressed prophet Jeremiah. I don’t know about you but when I’m really depressed, I don’t sit around with my chin on my hand looking picturesque. Personally, I take to my bed, put a pillow over my head and try to make the world stop spinning. I cry. I mope. I eat too much. I cope.
Oh, and yes, sometimes I write.