Monthly Archives: May 2008

The criticism of loving adoration

I have now finished George Saunders’s collection of essays The Braindead Megaphone, and I’m sad there are no essays left to read.  I wrote about the first half of the book here, where I concluded I liked the collection very much, and now having finished the book I can say I loved the collection absolutely.  Not every essay is on the same level of wonderfulness, but even the not-so-wonderful ones are great, and the truly wonderful ones are breathtaking.

The book’s second half offers an essay on conflicts at the U.S./Mexico border where Saunders spends some time with members of the Minutemen, an anti-immigration group, and one on “Buddha boy,” Ram Bahadur Bomjon, who supposedly meditated for many months without food or water.  In both of these essays, Saunders creates a persona who is out to see what he can see, keeping an open mind about everything and preparing to be surprised.  He doesn’t withhold judgment entirely — it’s clear, for example, that he doesn’t agree with the politics of the Minutemen — but he does look for the stories and the details that might surprise readers and himself.  Saunders’s specialty, it seems to me, is seeing, and then getting readers to see, the complexity of the situations he describes and the people he meets.  The entire book is an argument for reserving judgment, for taking one’s time to think about things, for really looking to see what’s out there before drawing any conclusions.  It’s a particularly humane argument and one I think our culture needs.

All that was great, but what I really, really loved were his essays on literature, the ones that made me realize there’s a genre of criticism, or perhaps I should just call it writing about literature, that I love, which is the sort of writing about literature that enthuses so eloquently, with so much passion and very little attempt at critical distance, that the reader finds it irresistible, even if the reader doesn’t know or like the literature being written about.  TJ and I have been talking about this mode of writing because of his Loving Iris blog, which promises to be a fine example of the kind of writing I’m talking about.  The title of his Iris Murdoch blog reminded me of the book Loving Dr. Johnson, which I haven’t yet read but hope to soon, and which is about the love many people have for Johnson, including the author.  All this reminded me of Nicholson Baker’s book U & I, which is a completely over-the-top celebration of Baker’s love for Updike, and then I read Saunders’s essays on Huck Finn and the Donald Barthelme short story “The School,” two brilliant examples of what I’m describing here.

TJ and I agreed that we love this form of criticism, but we can’t decide what to call it.  TJ suggested “adoration crit” but wasn’t really pleased with it, and all I can think of is my post title, “the criticism of loving adoration,” which has a nice rhythm to it, I think, but is obviously too unwieldy.

Can you think of a better term for what I mean, if what I’m meaning is making sense?  More importantly, can you think of other examples of this type of writing?

Saunders’s essay on Huck Finn was written as an introduction to the Modern Library paperback edition to the novel, but it’s not a typical introduction, which comes as no surprise if you know Saunders at all.  It opens with this sentence:

Let me begin by confessing that I have had more trouble with this piece than I’ve ever had writing anything in my life, mainly because I love this book and was deathly afraid I would fail to do it justice, which caused me to rush off to the library and do hours and hours of research, which only terrified me further and reduced me to writing quaking tautological sentences like “Much has been written about the fact that much has been written about the fact that, whereas the shores of the Mississippi, mythologically speaking, represent America’s violence, the center of the river, which traditionally has been represented as Utopian, is also occasionally seen to contain bloated floating corpses.”

Fortunately, Saunders gets past this difficulty and comes up with his “Tentative Narrative Theory regarding Huck Finn” (he capitalizes Important Ideas in all his essays, a tic which would usually annoy me but which somehow seems to work with Saunders), which he explains by way of a brilliant analogy involving airport people movers and piles of dirt.  Saunders can work magic with an analogy.  I’ll let you read the essay to find out what the Tentative Narrative Theory is, but I will say that the essay deals with the complicated issues of race and class in the novel in a way that’s both accessible and profound.  It manages to say good things about the book and about American culture both, all the while using Saunders’s personal, colloquial, loving voice.  He loves the novel, it’s clear, but he also sees its flaws — in fact, he seems to love it for those very flaws.

And then there’s the essay “The Perfect Gerbil” on Barthelme’s short story.  This is a 10-page masterpiece of loving adoration, an essay that says wonderful things about Barthelme’s “The School” but also about the short story genre itself. Here’s an example of one of his brilliant analogies, which he uses to analyze what Barthelme does:

When I was a kid I had one of these Hot Wheels devices designed to look like a little gas station.  Inside the gas station were two spinning rubber wheels.  One’s little car would weakly approach the gas station, then be sent forth by the spinning rubber wheels to take another lap around the track or, more often, fly out and hit one’s sister in the face.

A story can be thought of as a series of these little gas stations.  The main point is to get the reader around the track; that is, to the end of the story.  Any other pleasures a story may offer (theme, character, moral uplift) are dependent upon this.

So: if the writer can put together enough gas stations, of sufficient power, distributed at just the right places around the track, he wins: the reader works his way through the full execution of the pattern, and is ready to receive the ending of the story.

These “gas stations” can be plot events, but they can also be interesting uses of language — they are any sort of surprise that brings the reader pleasure.  Saunders’s essay charts how Barthelme uses these little surprises to delight the reader and then how he creates the perfect ending, though the entrance of the “perfect gerbil” of Saunders’s title.

Saunders essay becomes like a short story itself, the story of reading and delighting in Barthelme’s story. It’s complete with tension — how will Barthelme pull this off?  Will Saunders like the ending? — and surprises — where did that character Helen come from?  Wow, there’s a love story appearing now! — and a narrator whose charming personality comes through in the tone and syntax of every page.

I’m not sure why, but writing like this pleases me in a way that no other kind of writing does.  I suppose it’s a reminder of how much fun reading can be — a reminder experienced directly in my own reaction to the piece and indirectly through the writer’s own pleasure.  Anyone want to help me with a name or more examples?


Filed under Books, Nonfiction, Reading

A day in Salem: Hawthorne, witches, and terrifying bookshops

People, I am tired. Many thanks to those of you who wrote nice comments about my crash on Tuesday — I’m doing fine, although the bruises are getting uglier. I felt so fine, in fact, that I went on an 81-mile ride today, at a much faster speed than usual for a long, hilly ride (16.7 mph). It was a group ride, with four other people, including Hobgoblin. I started off feeling sluggish and nervous about riding with others — when anyone would yell or wobble in the slightest I would panic — but pretty soon my energy returned and I forgot about the crash on Tuesday and began to ride normally. The only thing that brought the crash back to mind was that whenever I went over a pothole or a crack in the road (which was often, as those of you who know Connecticut will readily believe), the bruises on my arm hurt.

It was a beautiful day, in the 60s and 70s, dry, and sunny, and we rode through beautiful Litchfield county. The riding doesn’t get any better in Connecticut, that’s for sure.

I also wanted to tell you about my day yesterday, which was Hobgoblin’s birthday and was spent taking a day trip to Salem, Massachusetts. The first thing we saw was the house where Hawthorne was born, and the House of Seven Gables, made famous by Hawthorne’s novel. The two houses are now right next to each other, although this is because Hawthorne’s birth home was moved in the 1950s. Both of the houses are great fun to walk through — I love looking at old houses, even if they aren’t historically famous — they have the low ceilings and small rooms you would expect from houses several centuries old. The House of Seven Gables has a secret staircase that takes you from the dining room up to the attic, and it has an interesting history, with additions added and then removed, gables removed and then restored, fortunes of the owners gained and lost, and, of course, Hawthorne’s own visits to the place. I have yet to read the novel, but now feel inspired to try to get to it soon.

Next we checked out the Peabody Essex Museum and managed to see only a small part of it, as it’s surprisingly large and we have limited endurance when it comes to museums. We spent a lot of the time looking at their very cool collection of model ships (which made me feel like reading Patrick O’Brian), and then we headed off to their special exhibits, including one on weddings around the globe and another on Mauri tattoos.

After that we had time and energy for one more museum, this one not as erudite as the other two — the pirate’s museum, which was silly but fun; it wasn’t much of a museum, actually, but more of a tour through some rooms with models of pirates and a guide who told us stories of piratical violence and betrayal.

Salem has a ton of museums, most of them probably like the pirate’s museum, which, although fun, wasn’t a lot more than an excuse to have a gift shop. It’s got several museums about witches, and in fact, much of the town is witch-obsessed. There are many witch-themed shops, and the entire month of October is basically a festival celebrating witches and all things Halloween-related. The irony of this is, of course, obvious. I couldn’t help but wonder what those women accused of being witches would have thought of the modern-day town, and also what Hawthorne would have thought of the place — would he like or hate it?

To recover from our museum-attending, we checked out two of the local bookshops, the first one a good independent store, and the second a used bookstore. The used bookstore is memorable, not for its stock, which was pretty mainstream with its multiple copies of extremely famous contemporary authors, but for the terror it inspired in me. For perhaps the first time in my life I breathed a sigh of relief when we left the shop. Believe me when I tell you that the books there are dangerous. Life-threatening, in fact.

The problem isn’t with the books themselves, but with the way the owners decided to cram them into the shop — most of them are stacked on top of each other rather than shelved side by side, and the stacks tower over you, threatened to topple on your head. I made the mistake of pulling a book out of one such stack and then I panicked because it started swaying towards me. I got my hand up in time to keep it from falling on me, but the stack wouldn’t stay put, and I couldn’t figure out how stabilize it with my one free hand. Thankfully the store owner came to my rescue and fixed the pile himself. I then decided I would look only at books toward the top of the stacks, but I embarrassed myself once again: the aisles are so narrow that as I walked down one of them, my handbag brushed against one of the piles, knocking it over. Once again the owner came to my rescue, restacking the books for me. The owner’s facial expression made it pretty clear that he spends a good bit of every day rescuing klutzy customers from themselves.

I couldn’t believe the place. The book stacks bulged and teetered, making me dizzy. One section was even wrapped in a thick cord to keep the books from sliding off their stacks and onto the floor. There is no cash register in sight; instead, near the door there is a gap in the book piles, about the length of a mass market paperback, through which customers carefully hand their purchases to the cashier, who carefully hands them back once the books are paid for. I went through this process with a P.D. James novel that sounded good and walked out the door relieved that I hadn’t done even more damage.

After that we got dinner, stuffed ourselves with chocolate cake, and headed home. We had such a good time, we’re hoping to head back before too long and see the things we didn’t have time for that day. I highly recommend a visit if you get the chance, but do be careful — danger lurks in some unexpected places.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Life

Race report — with crashes!

Today was my first crash in a bike race! I’ve crashed before, but always on my own, because of black ice or failure to pay attention to the road. This evening I got the thing over that I was dreading — my first real bicycle race crash. And I’m fine — I’ve got a nasty-looking bump on my knee, some bruises on my hip, a few red marks on my elbow and calves, a sore ankle, and that’s the worst of it. Except for my bike, which has a broken front wheel. It now has a curve in it it didn’t have before. Fortunately Hobgoblin has some extra front wheels, so I’ll be able to ride again before I get a new wheel of my own.

I’ve done two races in the last three days, and neither race went particularly well. Sunday Hobgoblin and I drove up to Hartford to ride in the criterium there; it was a beautiful day, in the 70s and sunny, and I’d just come off a week of easy riding and should have been well rested, but I just couldn’t quite get into the spirit of racing. I’m not entirely sure what the problem was, but I think part of it is that I ate too much before the race — always a potential problem for me because I’m more afraid of eating too little than too much — and my stomach felt heavy the whole race. I also don’t think I warmed up enough, but it could also be that I simply wasn’t into racing that day and so didn’t have the energy to put into a proper warm-up.

At any rate, the race started off fast but manageable, and I hung on and felt okay for a while. My heart rate was high, but I remember that happening on this course last year; it’s a fast course, mostly flat, which means the pack keeps a fast pace the entire time, with no chance for a break. I was okay until the 14th lap (out of 20 laps total), when I fell back a bit — I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I might have grabbed the wrong wheel and started following someone who couldn’t hold on. So there was a gap between me and the field, and I started chasing. I chased the field for a lap but couldn’t quite catch on again, and finally I realized it wasn’t going to happen. I rode the last 5 laps on my own — pretty unusual for me, because I hate riding all on my own in a race.

That was a disappointment because I finished the race last year and thought I could finish it again. But it just wasn’t my day, for whatever reason.

The race tonight, though, was another story. I got in a good 40-minute warm-up and worked hard enough to feel my energy levels pick up — something that never happened on Sunday. When the race began I could feel that I was going to do pretty well; I had no trouble climbing the hill, my heart rate stayed at a good level (in the upper 160s and 170s on the hill), and I had a lot of energy.

There was one ominous moment, however, when a particularly unstable rider (I’d noticed him as potential trouble in earlier races) crashed seemingly out of nowhere, all on his own. He may have been bumped and I missed it, but it looked like he just fell over, for no reason. No one else went down, but the warning was there. Everything was fine after that until the very last lap. I was feeling great, getting ready to make a big effort to stay with the pack as they sped up the hill, when I saw some wobbling in front of me, heard some yelling, and then the next thing I knew I was heading straight toward two bicycles lying on their sides on the road. I skidded forward a little ways, but landing on the bicycles meant I didn’t end up with as much road rash as I would have gotten otherwise. I discovered I was lying on someone’s leg, so I jumped up immediately. I’m not sure how many others went down, but it was 6 or 7, and it quickly became clear that the unstable rider, the one who crashed all on his own earlier, was the cause. I stood for a moment watching him lying there on the road, feeling anger — he should have learned his lesson after the first crash and his stupidity caused a lot of pain and will cost everyone involved lots of money in bike repairs — but also pity — I would never want to be a cause of a crash and I feel badly for anyone who has to deal with the guilt.

People slowly got up and assessed the damage; someone helped me figure out what was wrong with my bike and someone else drove up in a van to transport injured people and bikes back to the start line. People were complaining about the sloppy rider and he, the poor kid, was apologizing profusely, offering to buy me a new wheel and offering to replace everyone else’s broken parts. He kept apologizing, even well after we’d recovered from the crash. Mostly people ignored him, probably because, like me, they didn’t know what to say. Crashing is a part of racing, and everyone out there takes the risk that they might injure themselves or their bike, so I would never take anyone up on the offer to pay for bike repairs, but I do hope that rider learns how to ride a bit better.

So — now that I’ve crashed I can stop worrying about when the first time will be. I imagine I’ll be a little sore tomorrow, but I’m planning on doing a long ride on Thursday, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be just fine by then.


Filed under Cycling

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is a delightful novel, although calling it a “novel” doesn’t seem quite right, as it’s really more a series of sketches which only eventually settle into a conventional plot. It tells the story of a place, the small, isolated town of Cranford, more than it tells the stories of people’s lives, although it does plenty of that too. Cranford is old-fashioned, peaceful, beyond the reach of fads and fashions, and seemingly unchanging, although, of course, new people do arrive now and then, and people grow up, get married (or more often don’t), and grow old, as people must. Hardly anyone does any traveling, and London is portrayed as a far-away exotic place, different in all respects from Cranford, and by no means an object of anyone’s desire. People in Cranford like their lives and don’t see any need to try to make them any better.

As the very first sentence points out, the town is dominated by women:

In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.

To call these women “amazons” hardly seems right, as they are by no means warrior-like or fierce. But they do keep their town going, establishing their own customs and habits — their clothes are forever out of date and their social rules different from other places — and they take care of each other, at least when they aren’t involved in petty feuds about such things as whether Samuel Johnson is a more worthy author than Charles Dickens.

The book is not all about the town on a general level, though; it starts that way, and then moves into the lives of particular characters. There is the narrator, first of all, who doesn’t live permanently in Cranford, but visits friends there frequently. We never discover much about her life, except that she has never traveled beyond the bounds of Cranford and her hometown. She makes a good narrator for the novel, as the inhabitants of Cranford ask her to visit whenever anything exciting happens, after which she heads home again, a circumstance which allows Gaskell to skip around in time at will, just giving us the good bits without having to fill in the rest or make awkward transitions from one time period to another. The novel is told in the first person, and the narrator’s voice is quiet and contemplative, as it should be to portray a place such as Cranford properly, but it is also sensitive to the humorous aspects of Cranford, and now and then gently ironic, showing the reader how odd and charming the place can be, but never criticizing or complaining about it. There were moments when I laughed out loud at some of the narrator’s observations.

There is also Miss Matty, who becomes more and more important as the book goes on; she is a sweet, timid woman, getting on in years but still dominated by the memory of her now-deceased sister whose strong opinions ruled her life for many years. Miss Matty comes to seem like Cranford itself — she has her quirks and oddities and is extremely old-fashioned and set in her ways, but she proves to have sources of strength in the face of trials she must face, trials that form what there is of the book’s plot.

In some ways one might call this a conservative novel; it celebrates tradition, stability, and permanence, and it explicitly contrasts the quiet, virtuous lives led in Cranford with the uncertain, dangerous, ever-changing world around it. It values self-sufficient community, where people live peacefully with what money they have rather than seeking riches and self-aggrandizement. The characters are also extremely class-conscious, carefully maintaining boundaries between middle-class merchants and the genteel leisured class.

On the other hand, there is something subversive about this town made up mostly of women. Yes, at the novel’s end money comes in the form of a long-lost male relative returning from the east, but throughout the novel, the women take care of themselves and each other, deciding on their own when they want to invite in some male help. Many of them are suspicious of men, and they clearly value their female-centered community and don’t want it disrupted. They are “amazons” in the sense that they rule their own little world, finding their fulfillment in each other. Men seem to be largely beside the point.

This is the third Gaskell novel I’ve read; at this point I’m looking forward to reading and rereading more.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Summer plans

I’m back from the retreat and now my summer vacation is officially beginning. I’ll still have plenty of work to do all summer, though. Some things are minor like reports to write and articles to polish off, and other things are more time-consuming, like preparing for a new class in the fall. Most of my working time this summer, though, will go toward preparing to teach and then teaching my first online class, which will run in July. I’m thrilled to be able to teach without having to leave my study and without having to pay for gas and spend the time commuting, although I’m guessing I’ll end up preferring classroom teaching to online teaching.

Now I’m going through the awkward transition time between the busy semester and the more leisurely summer; inevitably I go through a few days or a week where I feel all out of sorts and strange and as though I don’t quite know what to do with myself, before I settle into a pattern of work and leisure that I can maintain for a few months. I always expect to feel nothing but euphoria when I’ve wrapped up the school year, but of course it doesn’t work that way.

I’m tremendously excited about one thing coming up this summer: I’ll be spending a weekend with Emily, and it looks like the two of us will travel to the middle of Pennsylvania somewhere to meet Courtney. Another blogger meet-up! I’m becoming addicted to hanging out with bloggers. I’ll be sure to write up the details.

I’m also hoping to go backpacking or perhaps rent a place in northern New England somewhere to do some hiking and bike riding. I wanted to do such a trip last year, but my illness got in the way, so I’m determined to make it happen this year. I’ve felt a longing lately to do a bit of traveling, or at least to get out of my house more, so although we don’t have money to do much in the way of real traveling, I want to see some of the beautiful local or relatively local places I haven’t yet seen. Perhaps, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to climb Mt. Washington in New Hampshire this year.

And, of course, I’ll be reading. There’s the list I created here with some books to choose from and also the list of nonfiction books I posted here that still looks enticing. There will be the summer library sales to visit and the library itself and of course there are all the books I’ve got unread on my shelves (I just recently added Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost).

I’ll be racing too; I’ve got races every Tuesday night and races many weekends through July, and I hope to fit in many rides in between all those races. I’d love to do another 130-mile ride like the one I did a few years ago; perhaps I will be able to do it without crying from pain for the last ten miles as I did last time. Sounds like fun, right?

Now I’m off to finish reading Cranford, an utterly charming novel. Then I’ll have the fun of deciding what novel to read next.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Life

The Braindead Megaphone

I’m going on a school retreat for most of the upcoming week, and so won’t be around to post for a while … just so you know.

I’m about halfway through George Saunders’s book of essays The Braindead Megaphone and am enjoying it very much.  When I picked it up I wasn’t sure what to expect; I’ve read some his short essays in the New Yorker and found them interesting and entertaining in their bizarre other-worldliness, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to read an entire book like that.  What I discovered, though, is a mix of seriousness and strangeness that is appealing.

The essays I like best are the more traditional ones, the ones that have more-or-less traditional essayistic elements such as a thoughtful, reflective voice and a mix of personal experience and social commentary.  The title essay, for example, makes a point about the dumbing down of our culture caused at least in part by certain media figures blaring stupidities at us all day long — these figures are like a guy coming into an intelligent, literate party with a megaphone and starting to talk.  He’s not necessarily saying the stupidest things that could be said, but in fact it hardly matters what he says because everyone is forced to listen to him and they find it hard if not impossible to keep their own conversations going.  The smart people are drowned out and everyone suffers because of it.

I don’t find the argument of this essay particularly original, but his style makes it worth reading — it’s funny, conversational, insightful in a low-key, understated kind of way.  Here are the closing two paragraphs to give you a taste of what it’s like:

This battle, like any great moral battle, will be won, if won, not with some easy corrective tidal wave of Total Righteousness, but with small drops of specificity and aplomb and correct logic, delivered titrationally, by many of us all at once.

We have met the enemy and he is us, yes, yes, but the fact that we have recognized ourselves as the enemy indicates we still have the ability to rise up and whip our own ass, so to speak: keep reminding ourselves that representations of the world are never the world itself.  Turn that Megaphone down, and insist that what’s said through it be as precise, intelligent, and humane as possible.

This is so typically George Saunders (if I’ve read enough to make such a claim), with its capitalized “Total Righteousness” and the whipping of our own asses — the directness of it — and it’s inspiring and moving in a way I don’t see in his more satirical pieces.  I like this more personal, intimate, sincere voice.

I enjoyed some of the later essays even more, though; the second essay is about a trip to Dubai in which Saunders describes the fabulous wealth on display, as well as all the poor people working to make those displays possible.  His persona in the essay is that of a man who hasn’t seen much of the world and is thrust into an entirely new situation and left to grapple with it alone.  His reactions vary wildly as he notices the extreme economic inequities but also the happiness with which exploited workers live out their exploitation, for their home countries offer much less opportunity than they can find here.  All this sounds so serious, though, and while the essay has a serious point to make (and a very moving conclusion, but I don’t want to keep quoting his conclusions here), it’s lightly humorous at the same time.  One of Saunders’s strengths, I’m seeing now, is using humor to make you want to relax and enjoy the ride, and then with the easiest, most natural of transitions hitting you with a moving scene or a profound thought, and then moving off in another direction toward another point that adds to or modifies or maybe even contradicts the first one.  It’s a style that invites pleasure and contemplation both and that allows for nuance and complexity, as Saunders wanders here and there, exploring an idea or an experience rather than preaching about it.

There is also a wonderful essay telling how Kurt Vonnegut transformed his ideas about reading and writing and another one on Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain as an early inspiration to become a writer.

What matters most to me in an essay collection is the voice, the sense of the person behind the words (the extent to which this sense is an illusion doesn’t matter), and it’s this quality that makes me wish this book wouldn’t end.  I’m a bit surprised to say that Saunders makes a good companion; I knew he was a funny, sharp social satirist, but not that he could write essays with so much feeling in them.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Against Against Happiness

One of my book groups was supposed to meet today to discuss Eric Wilson’s Against Happiness, but it got postponed, so I’ll have another couple weeks to stew over this book’s flaws. No, I did not like it one bit (first thoughts here). The idea sounded interesting, if not entirely new — that Americans are obsessed with happiness to the detriment of our souls and our deeper imaginative, creative selves — but the execution failed. At times I got so annoyed with the book I found myself wanting to defend happiness. Can it really be so bad??

The problems begin with the writing itself. It’s overwritten, florid, occasionally verging on the incomprehensible. There are too many passages like this:

The American dream might be a nightmare. What passes for bliss could well be a dystopia of flaccid grins. Our passion for felicity hints at an ominous hatred for all that grows and thrives and then dies — for all those curious thrushes moving among autumn’s brownish indolence, for those blue dahlias seemingly hollowed with sorrow, for all those gloomy souls who long for clouds above high windows.

I sort of see what he means here — the demand for constant happiness can flatten out experience and make it bland — and yet does happiness really mean that one does not notice thrushes and dahlias and the beauty of clouds? The writing too often veers toward bad poetry, the sort of thing angsty adolescents might compose. It’s also repetitive, and I couldn’t discern what made one chapter different from another. Against Happiness would have been much better as an essay rather than a book; it feels bloated at a mere 150 pages.

A friend told me that Wilson incorporates short biographies of famous depressives, and my first response was to be suspicious of these, thinking that I’d be bored by the familiar list of people like Virginia Woolf and Vincent Van Gogh whose depression may have contributed to their ability to produce great art. And yet when I sat down to read the book, I came across these sections with relief, as they helped to ground the writing a little bit. But even so, these sections are the familiar, clichéd portraits of famous depressives I was afraid I was going to find.

The argument can be vague as well. He assumes we know what he means by the difference between happiness and joy and by his talk of “polarities,” as in:

What is existence if not an enduring polarity, an endless dance of limping dogs and lilting crocuses, starlings that are spangled and frustrated worms?


to be alive is to realize the universe’s grand polarity. Life grows out of death, and death from life; turbulence breeds sweet patterns, and order dissolves into vibrant chaos.

All this sounds grand, but what does it mean? I can get a vague emotional sense of what he means, but not a concrete logical understanding.

He works with two categories of people, the melancholic and the happy, that are vastly oversimplified. At times I feel like I know the kinds of people he’s talking about when he talks about “happy types,” the people who look for an uplifting lesson in everything they read, for example, or people who don’t have the imagination to understand the suffering that someone else is going through. But most of the time the “happy types” he describes don’t seem real to me. My guess is that many people, certainly more than Wilson claims, will acknowledge the tragic side of life, even if they need to be pressed, and they’ll agree that the search for happiness is ultimately bound to be futile. He makes much of the statistic that 85% of Americans claim to be happy, but he (or perhaps the study that generated the statistic) doesn’t define what people mean by that claim. If I were asked whether I consider myself happy, I might be among the 85% that said yes, although I don’t consider myself a “happy type.” I would probably say yes, though, because even though I suffer from melancholy and maybe even mild depression now and then, I have a good life and I have joyful moments and I feel like I’m doing okay even though life is so harsh and our existence ultimately doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I’m muddling along, and that’s about the most anybody can hope for, and so I’d call that a kind of happiness.

The book has an uncomfortable feeling of self-congratulation, of pleasure taken in the fact that the author is part of an elite group of people who aren’t deluded like the vast majority of idiots out there. Maybe I’m too optimistic about what “most people” are like, but this attitude doesn’t sit well with me.

I did feel a moment of recognition when Wilson described how the happy types long for complete control over their lives; they don’t like the idea that a sad event can occur at any moment or that their lives could be turned upside down in an instant. I recognized myself in his description, as I am always looking for just the right way of doing things — the right balance of work and life, the perfect job, the perfect place to live, the right way of organizing my day, the right balance of social and solitary time. I want to feel perfectly organized and on top of things so that nothing takes me by surprise to cause any busyness or stress or worry. Obviously this is impossible, but I still hope, somehow, to make things perfect. I would be better off learning to see, as Wilson recommends, that the stability I long for is really a sort of premature death, and that living means constant change.

I wanted to have more moments of recognition like this one, however, and was disappointed. I’ll have to look to other writers for a more convincing celebration of melancholy.

You can read Hobgoblin’s take on the book here.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction