A Woman of Means by Peter Taylor
Against Happiness by Eric G. Wilson
Eric Wilson is the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University (a named professorship!!), and this book is utterly terrible. What can I do with that information? I just don't know. The premise here is that there are two types of people in America: the empty-headed majority that exists in a drug-induced cloud, fearful of sadness, and focused only on maintaining an unnatural happiness AND the utterly morose, depressed, and melancholy thinkers, writers, and creative geniuses. Not surprisingly, Wilson counts himself among the latter group and argues that we should all strive to be more like him. I'm not kidding. That is actually the whole point of this book. To make matters worse, he writes worse than some of my first-years. Really disgustingly verbose and florid prose covered with a sneering condescension. Sounds good, right? Here's an example:
Frustrated worms? These two sentences make me weep. Here's another example:Initially, we probably fear that this hunger for happiness at the expense of sadness is somehow unnatural, a violation of how the cosmos conducts itself. Again, what is existence if not an enduring polarity, an endless dance of limping dogs and lilting crocuses, starlings that are spangled and frustrated worms? (22)
But some people strain all the time to break through their mental manacles, to cleanse the portals of their perceptions, and to see the universe as an ungraspable riddle, gorgeous and gross. Happy types, those Americans bent only on happiness and afraid of sadness, tend to forgo this labor. They sit safe in their cages. The sad ones, dissatisfied with the status quo, are more likely to beat against the bars. (24)There's no place in Wilson's world for someone who is capable of grasping the gorgeous mystery of the world while maintaining a fairly contented sense of self. There's no place for someone who is happy while also seeking to change the injustices in the world. This us-against-them standpoint is offensive in its immaturity, but it could have been forgiven if he'd just been a better writer. Unfortunately, he does not demonstrate any such writing talent. This lack is a notable argument against his thesis that melancholics are the only ones capable of creative masterpieces. He refers to such minds as Keats, Blake, Melville, Hawthorne, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Beethoven, and Virginia Woolf as melancholics (like himself!) who found a "gloomy disposition" to be "especially well suited to the philosophical mood, perhaps even to intellectual brilliance" (72-73). I had already lost all respect for this work, but at this point, I almost heaved the book across the plane. I contented myself with a mere Ha! in the margin.
This book is really screamingly bad. Poorly argued, poorly reasoned, poorly written. If you are a melancholic genius, trust that you already agree with Wilson and move on. If you are one of the "happy types" wandering aimlessly around the mall in a vapid cloud of perfume samples and gap ads, you can't read anyway, so you're in no danger. For the rest of you . . . oh no, wait . . . there is no rest of you. Oh well.