Wednesday, December 22, 2010

More Musings on Winter and Melancholia

This morning I had a good talk with Joy Cardin on Wisconsin Public Radio. We talked about the sorrow that often comes with Christmas and the power of It's a Wonderful Life, the greatest holiday film:

Monday, December 20, 2010

Have a Blue Christmas

I was recently interviewed by Julie Rose on Charlotte's NPR affiliate, WFAE 90.7. We talk about how melancholy the holidays can be--and how that may not be such a bad thing:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Spiritual Value of Failure

Here's an article of mine just published on It appears in Jana Riess's blog called "Flunking Sainthood: On the Fun of Spiritual Failure," and it explores how the deepest darkness sometimes gets us closest to the light:

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Review of The Mercy of Eternity in The Raleigh News and Observer

Here's a review of my new memoir, The Mercy of Eternity, in The Raleigh News and Observer: The article also ran in The Charlotte Observer.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Interview on Gnosticism and Depression

I was honored this past weekend to be interviewed by Miguel Conner, host of Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio. We discussed my new book, The Mercy of Eternity, in several interesting contexts, including how its embrace of negative theology relates to the Gnostic tradition:

Review of The Mercy of Eternity

Here's a review of my new book in The Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Monday, October 18, 2010

Gnosticism and cinema

An excerpt from my book Secret Cinema: Gnostic Vision in Film was just published in the Voegelin View:

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Article on Bipolar Disroder, Academia, and Redemption, from Chronicle Review

Here's my article from the October 1 issue of The Chronicle Review. It's adapted from my book, just released: The Mercy of Eternity: A Memoir of Depression and Grace (Northwestern University Press).

Mania and Redemption
Mania, Academe, and Redemption

By Eric G. Wilson

Close to midnight, about a year after the birth of my child, I found myself, once again, shocked awake. My wife and daughter were sleeping in the bedroom upstairs. I was lying alone on the floor of my study, and I quickened for what was coming: the electric desperation to heave myself upright, flick on the lights, fire up my computer, and convert my brain's rising mercurial spirits into words, luminous and sharp—typing, click-click-click, until my wrists cramp and the sun climbs and I don't hear my family rise and my head feels feverish and I stare at the sentences I've made and try to shut my eyes but can't.

I craved this consuming surge, even though it would ruin my morning class on Coleridge, the departmental meeting I had to chair, and my afternoon child-care session. I had to have this productive rush, or I would lie there in the colorless air and become the emptiness, devoid of care for anything.

There was either more—more writing, more promotions, more honors—or nothing. There was the push of Faust—strive higher—or the negation of Godot: Why bother?

Such was my unreasonable rift during the worst of my disease: that laceration that psychiatrists call bipolar disorder. Since college, that mental illness had prodded me into a vicious, futile, exhausting battle between monomaniacal mania and solitary despair. Not surprisingly, the conflict had severely damaged my life, alienating me from my wife, goading me toward alcoholism, and tempting me with suicide. But my condition, miserable though it was, also offered what I erroneously thought was a major boon: early and continuing academic success.

When the depression dominated, I descended into extreme apathy. The leaves of springtime elms, brisk bluish flies, my toddler's first triumphant stumbles—all of these were ciphers, ennui's clutter. But when the mania kicked in—and it did, frequently, in my rapid-cycling variation—my whole heart howled: The world was not vapid then but monumentally significant, a profound drama of struggle and reward.

The mania pushed me into increasingly ambitious goals. I welcomed the price I paid in loneliness, delirium, and constant fatigue for straight A's, fellowships, a publishable dissertation, and a tenure-track job at a prestigious university, followed by well-reviewed monographs and articles in distinguished journals, early tenure, a quick promotion to full professor, and then a fast advance to an endowed professorship.

My storming of academe began, innocently enough, when, at 18, manic for success in sports as well as academics (and not yet diagnosed), I applied to and was accepted at the United States Military Academy. I was at West Point only hours before I concluded, in a rare moment of clarity, that the military was not for me. The academy required new cadets to remain at least 30 days, so I had to endure basic training before I could leave. For me, the strain of training was exacerbated by the depression into which I soon fell. Disheartened, confused, and unable to sleep, one night I retrieved the only book I had brought with me, hoping that reading would calm me. All I knew about the volume was that it had a picture of Bill Murray on the cover. My mom had bought me the book as a going-away present, assuming that it was about my favorite actor.

As I made out the pages, barely, by the moon and the light on my digital watch, I realized that the book wasn't devoted to Murray at all. It was The Razor's Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham, the novel on which the actor's latest film had been based. The story enthralled me. Its protagonist, Larry Darrell, was a young American who suffered trauma in World War I and returned home feeling unhinged. He read philosophy voraciously, rejected a high-paying job in a brokerage firm, broke his engagement with a gorgeous socialite, and embarked on a quest for enlightenment.

The character catalyzed an identity that had lain dormant in me, one that could reject societal conventions to sound the mysteries of the soul. By the time I finished the book, I was no longer uncertain about my resignation from West Point. I was keen on a higher calling—the hunt for healing knowledge. My path was clear: I would study literature and philosophy and become a professor. I had it all figured out.

I held to my plan, but failed to mirror Maugham's sage protagonist. Hounded by my mania, I perversely torqued books into vocational tasks. Writing was not an organic process for me. Once I became an assistant professor—that happened in 1997—I felt I had to subdue texts, corral them into interpretations that I could discipline into legitimate scholarship.

I awoke each morning at 5 and wrote until 8, even when I was depressed. After a six-mile run and breakfast, I went to the campus, where I divided my time between teaching and research. I usually returned home around 7. My goal was to complete one book manuscript per year that would then be published by an eminent scholarly press. I also hoped to turn sections of these books into articles—at least three a year—that would gain acceptance in reputable journals.

I almost reached those unreasonable goals. By the time I had been a professor for eight years, I had published six monographs and 21 articles. The work, by scholarly standards, was commendable, leading to awards, invitations to lecture, and a prominent fellowship.

Obviously, I was obsessed with work because it repelled the worthlessness I frequently felt. But my intensive labor also defended me against overwhelming sadness—about my sundered life, my suffering marriage, my loneliness. The grinding exertion, mechanical in its monotony, kept my focus away from my unruly and potentially debilitating emotions and furthermore gave me the illusion of total control. No feeling, I believed, could derail my engine.

If vulnerability is what makes us human, inspiring hunger for love and the ability to empathize, then I, in refusing to acknowledge my insecurities, was monstrous, a machine with a moribund soul, a man with cogs for organs.

In 2002, when my heart was almost congealed, my daughter was born. I did not rejoice. With my work habits threatened by the duties of parenting, I doubled my labors, thus impoverishing my fatherhood and further blighting my marriage. I wanted to die. When my daughter learned to smile, I began to grin at her, hoping she would respond in kind. My jaws were sore for days. Once I caught my grin in a mirror—I looked deranged.

After much resistance, I joined a therapy group, and it was there that I was finally called out, broken, and exposed. A woman in my group told me that my self-absorption was murdering my daughter. "It's men like you who ruin the world," she said. "You're a piece of shit."

I had been slapped awake. Whatever its origin—be it genetic or environmental or a series of bad choices—my depression had, through its debilitating fluctuations between torpor and anxiety, hindered my ability to reach imaginatively beyond myself to empathize with others and thus kept me isolated and divided from those with whom I might enjoy mutually rewarding relationships. I had been stupid and blind not to see it. Kierkegaard is right: "What characterizes despair is just this—that it is ignorant of being despair."

At last, on my own initiative, I visited a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me as bipolar, prescribed an effective combination of drugs, and recommended a good psychotherapist.

One morning I walk in a park with my 3-year-old daughter and we see a mole disappear into the ground. Another time I am alone reading Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," a poem about a rueful father's affection for his infant son, and I want to cry, so intense is my longing to be with my own child. Such occurrences began to soften my carapace.

I entered a season of epiphanies, each catalyzed by the literature I had tried to harden into rungs on my career ladder. Keats's "Ode on Melancholy" taught me that there are degrees of gloom: depleting despair, yes, but also melancholy, a richer state, attuned to the mournful marriage between death and beauty. The fragility of the morning rose moves us to appreciate its brilliance right now, before it's too late. This was a category of sorrow that encouraged me to find in my affliction moments of loveliness.

Around the same time, in preparing a class on Emily Dickinson, I came across this line: "Water, is taught by thirst." Lack here is not a hole in the soul but emptiness that informs us of the nature of fullness. Why couldn't, in my case, alienation turn into empathy's mentor?

It was Blake, though, who shattered my shell. Four years ago, in 2006, when my daughter was still 3, I was drowsily reading the poet on a dreary February afternoon, when this passage startled me: "Mutual Forgiveness of each vice, / Such are the Gates of Paradise."

It occurred to me that forgiveness is a way of knowing. When we forgive someone, we suspend judgment, refusing to reduce the person to either his or her transgression or a fulfillment of our sense of right. We try to witness him as he is, free of our own prejudices, fears, desires, and hang-ups. Doing so, we open to the irreducible complexity of this particular being and to the exuberant intricacies of the universe. We get close to the real—not stable substance but sublime possibility. We experience paradise: the infinite in the finite, the "World in a Grain of Sand, ... Heaven in a Wild Flower."

Blake made me think that I might actually forgive my bipolar disorder, weird as that sounds, and, in forgiving myself, enjoy a more capacious existence. For most of my adulthood, I had blamed my depression for my inadequacies—my workaholic habits, for example, and the attendant exhaustion, irritability, and selfishness. I had turned my depression into the sinister source of my woes, a vigilant tyrant.

Now I tried to suspend that negative projection and so liberate my mental illness from demonization and myself from subjection. I soon understood that my sickness isn't a curse but a part of me no different, in a way, from my hands or my lungs—an element of my constitution, no more and no less. I also sloughed off victimhood and gained some agency, realizing that I could exert a degree of control over my condition, creatively inflect it one way or another, and be responsible for the results.

Stripped of its dictatorial force, my manic depression showed positive potencies counterbalancing its negative ones. It had made me contemplative, for instance, pushing me into desolate places where I gained knowledge that otherwise would have eluded me. It had revealed to me what I most needed to become human: vulnerability, the need to love and be loved. Most important, it had disclosed to me the requirements of fatherhood and the beauties of my daughter.

The scholarly calling that almost killed me restored me to life. For years, academe had proved a perfect breeding ground for my mania, an arena that rewarded the obsessive egotism that divorced me from my emotions. Indeed, the academic environment in which I strived rarely displayed generous humanism. It was mostly a sphere of brutal competition where intense careerism pushed aside the pursuit of truth.

But the wisdom books abide in their abundance, regardless of our petty condensations. Their glorious passages recall us, in those moments when we are charitable, to the reason we chose to be scholars in the first place: We wished to emancipate the world from despotic ignorance. Certainly my own learning, in fortunate instants, liberated me from deadly blindness and granted a more genial vision.

Eric G. Wilson is a professor of English at Wake Forest University. This essay is adapted from his most recent book, The Mercy of Eternity: A Memoir of Depression and Grace, just published by Northwestern University Press.

Monday, September 27, 2010

My essay on Mania and Academia in today's Chronicle of Higher Education

Here's an excerpt from my new book, published today in The Chronicle Review of The Chronicle of Higher Education:

News for Mercy of Eternity

I'll be reading from my new book, The Mercy of Eternity: A Memoir of Depression and Grace, at Malaprops bookstore in Asheville, NC on Thursday, September 30, at 7:

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Happiness Formula

A recent article in The Independent questions the self-help movement. My book is mentioned.


In the mood for a daydream? All that wool gathering your teachers punished you for is, it turns out, good for you:

Impossible Talk

I just had a very rewarding interview with Jeff Kripal and Scott Jones on their show IMPOSSIBLE TALK. We talked about all sorts of compelling subjects, ranging from irony in cinema to the golden mean to paranormal experience. The podcast is now available on
iTunes. You can subscribe by going to iTunes and searching Impossible Talk. Tell your friends!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Cary Grant, Prince of Denmark

I just had an article published on Cary Grant, the greatest actor ever, and, yes, Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark. It's in the magazine Bright Lights. All you film lovers might find it interesting. The essay also examines the role of Grant's melancholy in his delightfully vexed acting style. Here's the link:

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Mercy of Eternity

Here's the cover for my new book, coming out in the fall with Northwestern University Press. The catalog copy goes like this:

The Mercy of Eternity
A Memoir of Depression and Grace

Eric G. Wilson

In his bestselling book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy (2008) Eric G. Wilson challenged our culture's blindly insistent pursuit of happiness at all costs. In his harrowing yet ultimately hopeful memoir The Mercy of Eternity the author turns an unsparing eye on his continuing struggle with bipolar depression, and finds within the very illness that causes so much suffering the resources for hope, forgiveness, and love.

Although it is Wilson's illness that brings these virtues into sharper relief, The Mercy of Eternity charts events and challenges that any reflective person must consider in his or her lifetime. A bright student-athlete on his way to West Point, Eric Wilson seemed to be well on the way to a fulfilling life, yet from his teen years he was haunted by overwhelming feelings of deep insignificance. As he aged, the traditional means of fulfillment—marriage and professional success—did nothing to assuage the descents into to darkness and destructive behavior.

As a scholar of literature, Eric Wilson often encounters the biggest question of life: is this suffering meaningful? From the Book of Job to Oedipus Rex to Hamlet to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and beyond, writers have wrestled with a similar question. For most of his life, Wilson has tried to eradicate either the imagined or real sources of suffering. Therapy and medication have offered some relief, but the birth of his daughter ultimately forces his hand. In some ways, the answer was in front of him the whole time, for Wilson finds in the literature of Coleridge, Blake, and others the lessons the depression might teach. When he comes upon “negative theology”--the school of thought that finds God in “dark night of the soul”—Wilson discovers the framework for a radical call to forgive depression. Only by forgiving this capricious, impersonal force is Wilson able to find the grace to move beyond the cycles of destructive self-absorption.

In a refreshingly honest coda, Wilson explains his title, based on this passage from Blake: “Time is the mercy of eternity...without Time's swiftness, which is the swiftest of all things, all were eternal torment.” Wilson admits that he still struggles, but in facing his depression instead of trying to escape it he finds wisdom and grace. Beautifully and accessibly written, The Mercy of Eternity is a brief yet profound meditation on largest question of life.

Eric G. Wilson
is the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University. His previous book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy (2008) was a Los Angeles Times and Calgary Herald bestseller, and was featured on NBC’s “Today Show,” NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Talk of the Nation,” the BBC’s “Today Programme,” and CBC’s “The Current.” It was also featured or reviewed in Newsweek, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, The Globe and Mail, among many others.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Rap on Happiness

Here's a piece from the New York Times Book Review that discusses a recent backlash against the self-help industry and positive psychology: The article, by fiction writer Amy Bloom, mentions Against Happiness as well as another book worth checking out: Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided.

Gnostic Media

Last week I had a very interesting conversation with Jan Irvin, the host of a weekly podcast for Gnostic Media Research & Publishing. His show, as he describes it, "takes you far beyond the commonly understood concepts of religious practice, history, philosophy, the ancient mysteries, and politics, into the heart of cognizance itself." We talked about America's addiction to superficial happiness and the powers of melancholia, of course, but also about an array of other subjects, ranging from shopping malls to politics to Paradise Lost. Here's a link to the show: