Over the course of reading Eric G. Wilson’s book, I found myself referring often to the author photo on the dust jacket, imagining the eureka moment when Wilson and his publisher found the image that captured perfectly the affect of a man who would write a book called Against Happiness. After all, such a man should not look, well . . . happy, should he But then how, exactly, should he look Annoyed Sad Curmudgeonly.
The look settled on is one of measured intelligence with a just a hint of superciliousness. The smile — at about two degrees from perfectly horizontal — is thin. No toothy, Cheshire-cat-eating grin for Mr. Melancholy.
It might be said that Wilson is not so much anti happiness as pro melancholy (or melancholia, its pluckier alternate), which has been, of course, the inspiration for much great art and creativity. The happiness he eschews is a particularly American-brand where “What passes for bliss could well be a dystopia of flaccid grins.” He rails against what he feels is his country’s zero-tolerance policy toward sadness of any kind, citing the mass-innoculation of its population with anti-depressants, botox and self-help books. This balm-seeking has resulted in the oppression of suburbia, malls, and glass towers with their numbing, soul-destroying sameness.
He has no issues with joy, however, a state that he believes occurs when we embrace the transient beauty of life, seeking a golden mean between the antagonisms that try to “rip the universe asunder.”
Which brings us to Wilson’s style, which often sounds like someone at a party, emboldened by his second Gin Fizz, trying on a foreign accent. But more than anything it calls to mind the alienated poetry of adolescence, the kind written in a surge of authenticity, but ultimately best left stuffed in a shoebox. How else to describe sentences like: “In the infinite corridors of the Internet, we find Web pages more interesting than the morning strands, shiny with dew, of the garden spider”
He has a penchant for alliteration, as in “a seedy synecdoche”; “the plentiful polarity of the cosmos”; or “sonorous and somber sentences.” He embraces archaic and unusual words forms like “troublous,” “gorgeousness” or “organicity,” though he also falls back on pedestrian “whatnot”’s.
I had concluded that Wilson was simply being ironic, until I got to the section where he berates “jaded” and “shallow” ironists who choose “rather mindlessly, to become a kind of ghost, a tenuous presence floating around the exquisite pressures of life, all the while whispering apathetic asides on the silliness of it all, on the allegedly empty core of existence.” Which leaves us with the disconcerting possibility that he is actually being sincere. If there is a joke to be had, it resides in an über-meta- ironic narrative that I honestly can’t be bothered with.
The other explanation is that Wilson, a professor of English in North Carolina, has spent too much time in the company of the American and British Romantics — Emerson, Blake, Keats, Coleridge and their ken, frequently quoted here — he specializes in. Having not read his other five books, I can’t say if they employ a similar voice, but I’m going to bet that he has reserved his fey, florid prose for this one — one perhaps intended to capitalize on the same audience that made Harry Frankfurt’s epigrammatic On Bullshit a minor success three years ago.
The ideas here are not original, but they are at least free of clichés. That depression begets creativity is widely acknowledged. After all, didn’t Kurt Cobain’s credibility skyrocket after he committed suicide Offing yourself is proof, like nothing else, that you are an artist to be taken seriously. Wilson invokes old melancholics like Handel, Melville and Woolf, but also celebrates more modern (though not contemporary) artists like Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon and Joni Mitchell (on Joni: “Yet again time’s terrible lacerations wounded her into soulful carolings”).
Wilson, you may have guessed, is himself a melancholic, and by counting himself amongst their hallowed ranks pays himself a backhanded compliment. He even offers himself up as their spokesman on the subject of architectural interiors: “We love high ceilings and crown moldings. We love worn-down hardwood floors. We love the smell of rusting radiators. We love rickety windows that rattle in the wind.” Environmentally sustainable homes, it seems, are not conducive to artistic greatness.
I get no joy out of criticizing Wilson’s book, but perhaps he does. After all, aren’t poor reviews one of the surest routes to melancholy