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.
This of course does not mean that we should simply wallow in gloom, that we should wantonly cultivate depression. I’m not out to 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. — Eric G. Wilson
Not this one, baby. Left unanswered — maybe it’s in his book — is this uncomfortable question:
Is the sort of sorrow possible for a culture that’s still deeply committed to minimizing physical suffering itself too pitiable to be valorized? All throughout the 19th century this question gripped Europe’s philosophers. The melancholia and nostalgia of the age was recognized, and sometimes billed, as the consequence of having irretrievably lost the possibility of ancient virtue and truly noble politics. Constant took Rousseau to task for putting France’s round peg in the square hole of Sparta in a misbegotten effort at romantic denial on that count. Tocqueville warned aristocrats that a pang of sadness at the worldwide march of equality was natural, but that the time to get over it was now. And almost Nietzsche’s entire corpus hammers away at two ideas: that (1) suffering is ineradicable and (2) therefore attempting to eradicate its more blatant forms will serve to enervate society first and then make it neurotic, as the innately anxious soul turns inward upon itself. Thence Freud.
For Constant, the answer seemed to be that democratic souls, unlike aristocratic ones, could be healthy and content with a well-managed combination of civil liberty and representative government. But he appeared not to glimpse the way that his own aristocratic neuroses, which led him to publish semiautobiographical novels, were also being democratized, whereas Nietzsche underrated the possibility that inner anxiety among the common people can, under modern circumstances, actually show forth in the democratization of creative inspiration. Tocqueville insisted that, regardless, the human soul would go wrong under equality unless disciplined in the details of both civic and political life. And as humane and intelligent as Wilson’s op-ed may be, it’s a lesson in many ways already learned. The ‘science of happiness’ kick is itself a counterreaction to a culture in which people at all social levels have deeply internalized the ‘value’ of ‘drama’ to energizing everyday life.