Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ennui envy

Greek humoral medicine had endowed the spleen and the black bile produced as an antidote to cure melancholia or depression. Of course, in today’s world there are dozens of pharmaceutical devices to cure depression and in the odd case, an overdose (accidental or intentional) could also send one to states of happy ecstasy. In an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Wilson talks about the overemphasis of happiness in American life and the problems inherent from our constant struggle to create new and innovative ways of beating depression.

Come melancholy! silent Pow'r,
Companion of my lonely hour,
To sober thought confin'd;
Thous sweetly-sad ideal guest,
In all thy soothing charms confest,
Indulge my pensive mind.
…. ….
In Death's soft slumber lull'd to rest,
She sleeps, by sliming visions blest,
That gently whisper peace:
'Till the last morn's fair op'ning ray
Unfolds the bright eternal day
Of active life and bliss.

In 'An Ode to Melancholy' by Elizabeth Carter (full poem here) starts by actually courting the beneficial power in the extreme isolation offered by melancholy only to tell us in the end that the author was indeed blessed by the ‘sweet’ episode that taught her to further appreciate life in greater fullness than ever before. That applies to a lot of us - we go through periods of want where everything seems to be a struggle and the smallest tasks a big hurdle. All of these tasks and struggles suddenly seem simpler when the tides turn (and they do) and fortunes are reversed. In addition to the tasks seeming simpler and lighter, often we tend to appreciate the new found goodness in a deeper and thoughtful manner.

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that almost 85 percent of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least pretty happy. There is nothing wrong with this, it is good to be happy, but Eric writes rather compellingly that the dearth of melancholia in society also means that the muse that powers the arts, poetry and music is slowly disappearing from our society. It is commonly believed that sadness lends to a deeper introspection of our condition in society – thus leading to a flowering of deep, introspective works in music and poetry. It can only be extrapolated that the slow banishment of the same (for the first time in recorded human history) might lead to structural re-adjustments whose effects are yet to be clearly understood. Moreover, he also asks the question: How can so many of us be so happy when globally the problems are ever more dire by the day? (yesterday I read a report that talked about killings in the Congo - 1500 people die each day from ethnic clashes, roughly 45000 a month). Not to mention of mutual aggression and hatred taking place in the Balkans, Chechnya, North West Pakistan and a host of other countries. Maybe the adage of the 'frog in the well' seems more adept here. ‘Everything looks good in my well and I can see no further, hence all is well’ syndrome that might be afflicting the American populace. Maybe it is a complex combination of positive psychology adherents, isolationist tendencies (if you tune into the news any evening and check the percentage of ‘global’ content, you will see what I mean), fear of seeking reality and pharmaceutical anti-depressant cocktails that seem to have led us down this path of being extra happy and bubbly.

I for one am afraid that American culture's overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations.
My fears grow out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to disregard the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ignorance of life's enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience.
Melancholia, far from a mere disease or weakness of will, is an almost miraculous invitation to transcend the banal status quo and imagine the untapped possibilities for existence. Without melancholia, the earth would likely freeze over into a fixed state, as predictable as metal. Only with the help of constant sorrow can this dying world be changed, enlivened, pushed to the new.

Again, I must hasten to add that I am not endorsing a sad, melancholic outlook to life, but rather a tempering down of the extreme forces that assail us in achieving ultimate bliss, the American dream and super satisfaction might be actually good for the society in the longer run. A closer look at the problems around the world and a deeper appreciation for the issues might make us better global citizens.

In the end, I am really not sure. On the one hand, we as a family seek the dream – nurture our children - catering to their every need and making sure that hints of sadness in their eyes are wiped clean with that next candy or toy that we dutifully buy from the global marketplace. We also are privy witnesses to the paradox – the blank stares that greet you when you talk to teenagers about global issues and the fact that they are about to compete in a world gone flat, where geographical, linguistic and cultural barriers would not mean much and all of us would be expected to compete and cooperate in closer ways than ever before… Of course, it is not the children one should blame; it would be us - who foster them – foster them in ways that are bereft of the larger landscape…

Gaspard Gresly (French, 1712 - 1756), 'A candlelit interior with figures around a table', oil on canvas, 27" X 33", 1740

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