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Arguing the Upside of Being Down

Feb 11, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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Author Eric G. Wilson has come to realize he was born to the blues, and he has made peace with his melancholy state.

But it took some time, as he writes in his new book, a polemic titled Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy.

At the behest of well-meaning friends, I have purchased books on how to be happy. I have tried to turn my chronic scowl into a bright smile. I have attempted to become more active, to get away from my dark house and away from my somber books and participate in the world of meaningful action. ... I have contemplated getting a dog. I have started eating salads. I have tried to discipline myself in nodding knowingly. ... I have undertaken yoga. I have stopped yoga and gone into tai chi. I have thought of going to psychiatrists and getting some drugs. I have quit all of this and then started again and then once more quit. Now I plan to stay quit. The road to hell is paved with happy plans.

Wilson has embraced his inner gloom, and he wishes more people would do the same.

The English professor at Wake Forest University wants to be clear that he is not "romanticizing" clinical depression and that he believes it is a serious condition that should be treated.

But he worries that today's cornucopia of antidepressants — used to treat even what he calls "mild to moderate sadness" — might make "sweet sorrow" a thing of the past.

"And if that happens, I wonder, what will the future hold? Will our culture become less vital? Will it become less creative?" he asks.

Wilson talks to Melissa Block about why the world needs melancholy — how it pushes people to think about their relation to the world in new ways and ultimately to relate to the world in a richer, deeper way.

He also explores the link between sadness, artistic creation and depression — which has led to suicide in many well-known cases: Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh, Hart Crane and Ernest Hemingway, for instance.

Wilson says perhaps this is "just part of the tragic nature of existence, that sometimes there's a great price to be paid for great works or beauty, for truth."

"We can look at the lives of Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, Hart Crane and others and lament the fact that they suffered so. Yet at the same time, we're buoyed, we're overjoyed by the works they left behind," Wilson says.

The husband and father of a young daughter also acknowledges that melancholy is "difficult terrain to negotiate in domestic situations." He says there are certainly times when his family hoped he would be "happier," and yet they would not want him to pretend to feel something he doesn't.

Wilson says that by taking his melancholy seriously, his family ultimately will get to know him more deeply and develop a more intimate relationship with him.

"To get to know your partner, your spouse, your friend fully, you really have to find a way to embrace the dark as well as the light. Only then can you know that person," he says.

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