Speed reading

Pub date February 17, 2009


By Eric G. Wilson

Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

166 pages


Contemporary perkiness has an enemy and timeless melancholia has a defender in Eric G. Wilson, whose Against Happiness is a largely poetic and occasionally prosaic screed. Wilson is quite clear that he doesn’t want to romanticize clinical depression — if anything, his characterization of those who might genuinely need prescribed pharmaceuticals as "lost souls" oversimplifies in the other direction. His book isn’t an expansive survey so much as a personal rumination. That said, it wastes no time identifying and successfully critiquing the Protestant Pilgrim (via William Bradford) and capitalist (via Benjamin Franklin) roots of the inhumane and all-American smiley face. For Wilson, such perkiness reveals definite undertones of necrophilia.

Wilson has a flair for the alliterative binary opposition. He pithily notes the contemporary tendency to confuse pixels with people, observing that "We carry with us the world wherever we go; we don’t need to go anywhere." Though he doesn’t present the argument in a flagrant manner, it isn’t hard for a reader to infer that this sort of passive colonizing of experience characterized George W. Bush–era brainwashing. Against Happiness might have been more provocative if Wilson charted or demonstrated the political aspects and post-human fallout of American contentment at greater length, and spent less time celebrating the already well-established dolor of William Blake and John Keats, or pop culture corollaries such as Joni Mitchell in her Blue period and Bruce Springsteen in Nebraska. But this is his book, not mine, and for the most part it is zestful in its love of sadness.


By Jacky Bowring

Oldcastle Books

240 pages


Early in A Field Guide to Melancholy, author Jacky Bowring makes the first of a few references to Robert Burton’s 1621 tome The Anatomy of Melancholy, stating that "rather than achieving any kind of precision," the 783 pages of its first edition only "served to further emphasize the complexity of melancholy." As it’s title makes clear, Bowring’s carefully structured book is more modest in aim and more sympathetic to its subject — it aims to "extol the benefits of the pursuit of sadness, and question the obsession with happiness in contemporary society."

In doing so, Bowring avoids the biliousness that dates back to ninth-century characterizations of melancholy, instead favoring a gentle instructive tone that, while academic in basis, is never sterile. Her field guide is a particular one, by no means definitive — in the realm of contemporary music, for example, she calls upon the Cure, Smashing Pumpkins, and especially Nick Cave as exemplars and never mentions a perhaps more famous Pope of Mope. In the realm of cinema, she foregrounds Ingmar Bergman, but still has time for less obvious and perhaps more compelling figures such as Tacita Dean. Though he enters and exits the text seemingly at whim, in some ways the most resplendent melancholic species is the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran, who might very well be the true Oscar Wilde of misery thanks to a Bible-size collection of primary aphorisms. Bowring’s book is a worthy introduction to Cioran, and that is but one of its merits.