Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Gnosis and Melancholy

I just came across a very insightful lecture on Gnosticism by Erik Davis, an excellent writer on all sorts of subjects, including technology, the occult, and Led Zeppelin. (For more on Mr. Davis, see

In the talk, Davis clearly describes the Gnostic tradition and then connects it to psychology and ultimately to melancholy. The talk is brief, too--well worth your time. Here's a link:

I was pleased to hear that Mr. Davis in the lecture referenced an article I published a few years ago in The Georgia Review, called "The Dark Art":

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Black Dog

I just enjoyed a very interesting conversation with Jon Hansen on his blogtalk radio show. We spent some time discussing the relationship between melancholy and economics, mainly focusing on how too much optimism can lead, perhaps ironically, to failure, financial or otherwise. Here's the link:

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Self-Help on the BBC

I appeared on BBC's Newshour Sunday to debate a self-help writer. During the segment, though, the debate quickly turned into a rich conversation. The writer, Jim Bouchard, honestly faces the difficulties of life and encourages his readers to do the same, all the while revealing the powers we all possess for transforming hardship into a joyful life. I was also heartened to find that Jim is a martial arts master--I myself am a student of Tae Kwon Do--who effectively translates the perennial wisdom of his art into sound practical advice. Here's a link to the conversation. You'll have to fast forward a bit; we get going around the 50 minute mark.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Light in Winter

You might find the attached article interesting. It's called "Light in Winter," published today in the on-line version of The New York Times. The piece explores how the melancholy life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge brought me closer to my daughter. Here's a link:

Friday, May 29, 2009

Melancholy in Maine

I recently was up at Bates College in Maine to lecture on Against Happiness. While there, I was interviewed for a news show airing on an NBC affiliate station. The show is called "207." I enjoyed a brief but rewarding conversation on the beautiful Bates campus. Here's a link to the interview:

Too Much Niceness

Here's an interesting article from the Sunday edition of The New York Times. It's from the Style section, and it explores a symptom of the American addiction to happiness: an overemphasis on bland agreeableness, on rote pleasantry, on, in a word, niceness. You'll find some quotations from me in the article; you might especially like the final paragraph of the piece, mainly if you're dead weary of Tom Hanks. Here's the link:

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Most Dangerous Hobby in the World

Of course brooding over the complexities of our needs and wants is important work, but we must also now and again escape into realms of pure desire, those regions of the heart and mind that are simply beautiful for the sake of being beautiful--not useful really at all, at least in a pragmatic way. Here's my homage to such reverie, as it exists in the world of cinema-love. It's an article I recently published in The Virginia Quarterly Review: If you find this piece interesting, you'll also want to check out a brilliant blog on classic cinema and the wonderful ways those old films were exhibited: The writing in this blog, all done by John McElwee, is especially strong--insightful, lucid, eloquent, at times simply exquisite.

The "Gift" of Financial Insecurity

Here's an article I recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I think it sums up nicely many of the ideas I've been exploring in this blog. I hope you find it interesting:

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Death of the American Dream

Most Americans from the outset have imagined their country as a place where dreams come true, where one can realize almost any possibility one wishes.

This comes across clearly in early representations of America. In the 17th-century, Puritans from England came to this country in hopes of establishing a religious utopia, a place where they could establish heavenly bliss here on earth. In the eighteenth-century, American capitalists translated religious dreams to economic ones, claiming that America is the sphere where one can, through efficient labor, realize happiness through wealth. Many Americas in the 19th century believed in Manifest Destiny, the idea that this nation is blessed by God and thus should spread its democratic ideologies to the ends of the earth--removing all "obstacles" (such as entire Native American tribes) along the way.

Such visions suggest that Americans should be the happiest people in the world. Many have translated this idea into a prescription: Americans, because of their fortunate status, have a responsibility to be happy.

Now, of course, the economic crisis is shattering these dreams. While this is sure to bring sorrow, it is also, at least on some level, a positive development. Why? The American Dream, despite its seductions, has for hundreds of years blinded Americans to stark realities--not only to the suffering it has inflicted on those not part of the dream but also to the intrinsic tragedies in a world that falls far short of utopia.

The recession might disillusion us in a helpful way--wake us up to vital experiences we have heretofore ignored or repressed. Maybe in place of the old American Dream, always vaguely imperialistic in its reductions of capacious facts to narrow fantasies, there can arise a new one--a robust vision more sensitive to nuance and complexity, to heterogeneity and conflict, to the brisk and exhilarating interplay between joy and sorrow. Such a dream--it need not be American--might pull us from our self-serving reveries and place us firmly on the shared land.

For a thoughtful meditation on the American Dream and its possible demise, see this recent article in Vanity Fair:

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Edge

There's an interesting piece in today's New York Times, an op-ed by Judith Warner. The article describes the potential blandness of mindfulness therapy and wonders if it's precisely our dark humor and sense of the absurd that make us human. Here's a link:

I explore a similar possibility in Against Happiness: an urge for total contentment can result in an inhuman aloofness while an embrace of our emotional turbulence, frequently nostalgic or anxious, sometimes even angry or bitter, is essential to a fully lived, fully engaged life.

Monday, March 2, 2009

What Is Enough?

I've been thinking a lot about Thoreau lately. His book Walden is, among other things, a profound meditation on that ever-shifting and terribly vague line between wants and needs. The distinction is of course far from simple; in fact, it's probably impossible to establish it once and for all. Obviously, we need food and shelter to survive, as Thoreau makes clear. But is that all we need to live a fulfilling life? One might argue, for instance, that friendship or artistic expression is as much a need as a want--a human need, perhaps, an abiding requirement that separates us from animals.

Wherever we draw the line between needs and wants, we are more likely to brood over this all-important division in times of loss, when we feel bereft on material or psychological levels. Obviously, we never want to lose our beloved objects or our feelings of well-being. But it is perhaps precisely an experience of loss that could grant us a surprising gain: an answer to the question, at least for the moment, of what is enough.

Such is yet another way that sorrow--maybe in the form of nostalgia or regret--can, if seen in a certain light, instruct and inspire.

Anyway, here's an interesting take on bankruptcy and wisdom from Stanley Fish:

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

John Keats and the Miracle of Melancholia

Yesterday I finished reading a powerful new book on the poet John Keats. It's by Stanly Plumly, and it's called Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography (Norton, 2008). The book made me think about how our current economic crisis might actually cause a revival of serious literature in our culture. As more and more Americans realize the ephemeral nature of the material life, they might well turn toward the more durable wisdom of writers like Shakespeare, Keats, and Woolf. Even if the works of these writers, as well as those of other powerful literary artists, don't always offer comfort, they frequently examine the ways that tragedy--far from being aberrant--is actually instructive, a revelation of what is vital and rich.

I published the following essay in the Los Angeles Times in February of last year. It's called "The Miracle of Melancholia." It explores how Keats' ideas about sorrow are pertinent to our contemporary scene. I hope you find it interesting.

In April of 1819, right around the time that he began to suffer the first symptoms of tuberculosis – the disease that had already killed his mother and his beloved brother, Tom – the poet John Keats sat down and wrote, in a letter to his brother, George, the following question: “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?”

Implied in this inquiry is an idea that is not very popular these days – at least not in the United States, which is characterized by an almost collective yearning for complete happiness. That idea is this: A person can only become a fully formed human being, as opposed to a mere mind, through suffering and sorrow. This notion would seem quite strange, possibly even deranged, in a country in which almost 85% of the population claims, according to the Pew Research Center, to be “very happy” or at least “happy.”

Indeed, in light of our recent craze for positive psychology – a brand of psychotherapy designed not so much to heal mental illness as to increase happiness – as well as in light of our increasing reliance on pills that reduce sadness, anxiety and fear, we are likely to challenge Keats’ meditation outright, to condemn it as a dangerous and dated affront to the modern American dream.

But does the American addiction to happiness make any sense, especially in light of the poverty, ecological disaster and war that now haunt the globe, daily annihilating hundreds if not thousands? Isn’t it, in fact, a recipe for delusion?

And aren’t we merely trying to slice away what is most probably an essential part of our hearts, that part that can reconcile us to facts, no matter how harsh, and that also can inspire us to imagine new and more creative ways to engage with the world? Bereft of this integral element of our selves, we settle for a status quo. We yearn for comfort at any cost. We covet a good night’s sleep. We trade fortitude for blandness.

When Keats invoked the fertility of pain, he knew what he was talking about. Though he was young when he composed his question – only 24 – he had already experienced a lifetime of pain. His father had died after falling from a horse when the future poet was only 9. A few years later, Keats nursed his mother assiduously through tuberculosis, but she died in 1810, when he was 15. Soon after, he was taken from a boarding school he loved and required to apprentice as an apothecary; he then underwent a gruesome course in surgery in one of London’s hospitals (in the days before anesthesia).

Orphaned and mournful, Keats spent his days brooding. But after much contemplation, he decided that sorrow was not a state to be avoided, not a weakness of the will or a disease requiring cure. On the contrary, Keats discovered that his ongoing gloom was in fact the inspiration for his greatest ideas and his most enduring creations.

What makes us melancholy, Keats concluded, is our awareness of things inevitably passing – of brothers dying before they reach 20; of nightingales that cease their songs; of peonies drooping at noon. But it is precisely when we sense impending death that we grasp the world’s beauty.

Keats was of course not the only great artist to translate melancholia into exuberance. This metamorphosis of sadness to joy has been a perennial if frequently unacknowledged current in Western art.

Consider George Frideric Handel, the 18th century composer. By 1741, when he was in his mid-50s, Handel found himself a fallen man. Once a ruler of the musical world, he had suffered several failed operas as well as poor health. He was left in a state of poverty, sickness and heartsickness. Living in a run-down house in a poor part of London, he expected any day to be thrown into debtor’s prison or to die.

But then, out of nowhere, as if by some divine agency, Handel received a libretto based on the life of Jesus and an invitation to compose a work for a charity benefit performance. On Aug. 22, 1741, in his squalid rooms on Brook Street, Handel saw potentialities no one had before seen. Immediately, he felt a creative vitality course through his veins. During a 24-day period, he barely slept or ate. He only composed, and then composed more. At the close of this brief period, he had completed “Messiah,” his greatest work, a gift from the depths of melancholia.

We could also recall Georgia O’Keeffe, the 20th century painter. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, O’Keeffe left the East Coast for Taos, N.M. She fell profoundly in love with the lonely vistas of this world denuded of human corruption. However, even though she was enlivened by this part of the world, in 1932, her lifelong battle with melancholia caught up with her. She was hospitalized for psychoneurosis.

Rather than quelling her creative spirit, this breakdown did the opposite. Upon being discharged, she returned to the Southwest. There, in 1935, she painted some of her bleakest and most beautiful landscapes: “Purple Hills near Abiquiu” and “Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock Hills.” Both feature dark things amid the desert’s glare – gloomy shadows and stormy clouds. Into these haunting shades – hovering amid hard-scrabble rock and a sinister skull – one stares. One senses something there as silent and sacred as bones.

Joni Mitchell confessed in an interview that she has frequently endured long periods of gloom. But she has not shied away from the darkness. Instead, she sees her sorrow as the “sand that makes the pearl” – as the terrible friction that produces the lustrous sphere. Given her fruitful struggles with sadness, Mitchell has understandably feared its absence. “Chase away the demons,” she has said, “and they will take the angels with them.”

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. 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.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Epidemic of Happiness

Here's a hilarious video from The Onion. I wish I'd achieved this level of satire in my book.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Power of Negative Thinking

Last fall, The Spectator published an article on how blind optimism, related, of course, to happiness addiction, is partly responsible for our current economic mess. The piece explores the idea that pessimism, and maybe even melancholy, are essential for good leadership. It's quite possible that Abraham Lincoln's brilliance as a leader came from his chronic melancholy. While Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate states, was overly idealistic and quick to make decisions based on his optimism, Lincoln wasn't afraid to question long-standing assumptions, to deliberate over his many options, and to be sensitive to vagueness. Joshua Wolf Shenk's Lincoln's Melancholy examines this connection between Lincoln's gloom and his creative leadership. The Spectator article, in which my book is featured, offers some very interesting thoughts on this unexpected yet powerful connection between pessimism and wisdom. Here's a link to the article:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Experiences Make Us Happier Than Possessions

A new scientific study has shown that experiences make us happier than possessions. This is one of the main arguments of my book, an argument that is especially important, at least I believe, during a time when many are losing possessions or unable to purchase them. Here's a link to the article:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Against Happiness now in paperback

My book Against Happiness (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) was just released in paperback a couple of weeks ago. I decided to start this blog to discuss my book's special relevance in these troubled financial times.

While my book was a critical and commercial success when it was released in its hardcover form last year--it garnered praise from the likes of Lewis Black, for instance, and made the LA Times bestseller list--I believe that our current historical moment makes my book much more relevant than it was last January. Our country was not yet in a recession back in those days; indeed, most Americans were still more or less still living their lives of trouble-free decadence, seeking the happiness fix from the many material comforts our lucrative industries daily produced.

Now, however, the economic crisis is forcing Americans to question their commitments to superficial happiness. U.S. citizens are currently searching for rich experiences that don't require money; they are turning more toward the lasting treasures of the contemplative life; they are learning from their sorrow, discovering powers unavailable to them in their former contentment.

My book is precisely about the value of melancholy for living a full and vital life. I believe that the wisdom of sadness is exactly what Americans need at this moment, and I think that my book offers this wisdom. Over the next few posts, I plan to develop the ideas that seem especially applicable to our troubled times.