Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Merits of Melancholia

Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?
--John Keats

Chase away the demons and they take the angels with them.
--Joni Mitchell

A person can only become a fully formed human being, as opposed to a mere mind, through suffering and sorrow.
--Eric G. Wilson

English professor Eric G. Wilson argues that the American pursuit of happiness, fueled by Prozac and "positive psychology," has robbed many lives of the "fertility of pain" or "melancholia" that propelled Keats, Handel, Georgia O'Keefe, and countless others to their greatest works. Joni Mitchell calls her bouts with melancholia the "sand that makes the pearl," and Professor Wilson says:
"Melancholia, far from error or defect, is an almost miraculous invitation to rise above the contented status quo and imagine untapped possibilities. We need sorrow, constant and robust, to make us human, alive, sensitive to the sweet rhythms of growth and decay, death and life."

Wilson explains that he's not urging that we "wantonly cultivate depression" or "romanticize mental illnesses that can end in madness or suicide."

"On the contrary, following Keats and those like him, I'm valorizing a fundamental emotion too frequently avoided in the American scene. I'm offering hope to those millions who feel guilty for being downhearted. I'm saying that it's more than all right to descend into introspective gloom. In fact, it is crucial, a call to what might be the best portion of ourselves, those depths where the most lasting truths lie."

Twelve years ago, I became romantically involved with a woman I should never have gone near. When she inevitably left me in the dust a few months later, I went thorough the "best of times and the worst of times." For over a year, I could hardly eat or sleep, and I'd cry at the proverbial drop of a hat, especially at songs of love and loss and when I saw suffering, human or animal.

But I also experienced some of my greatest joys during that time--mudita over others' good fortune, a sense of sublime connectedness with all living things and with the ups and downs of life, and, finally and overarchingly, an almost constant sense of what I can only characterize as soulful depth that I've seldom even glimpsed before or since.

I don't mean to suggest that I would want to return to those mostly gloomy days and interminable nights, and I certainly don't claim to have accomplished any great things back then. But there was, nevertheless, something deep and magical about that time that I would like to regain something of without plunging forever into a depressive abyss.

In other words, I think Eric Wilson is on to something, and what I'm now trying to figure out is how to reconcile Wilson's "miracle of melancholia" with my essential philosophy that the ultimate goal and purpose of life is to be happy. At this point, I will only and vaguely say that it seems to me that the solution lies in the understanding that happiness is not merely the blind pursuit of hedonistic pleasure or of a life devoid of all unpleasantness, but is an ongoing and much more complex fulfillment of one's divinely human nature.

No comments: