Edgar Degas’ Melancholy (1874)
Ask a person what they most want in life and most will automatically reply “happiness”. It’s more than a fair answer and happiness in life is a worthy goal but is it the alpha and omega of our being? One must feel sadness and loss to understand the absence of happiness and to magnify its benefits. It’s these range of emotions that make us all the more human.
In our technologically driven world, many seek happiness by canceling out sadness through medication. Prozac is one of the more popular medications on the market and like other anti-depressants it has been criticized for making people “less human” since it limits the range of their emotions. Soma was used in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” for much the same reason (amongst other reasons).
Americans are notorious pill-poppers, especially those that can result in some form of “happiness”. After all, it fits into their country’s mission statement: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” all too well. But is happiness everything? Eric G. Wilson says it isn’t and that by eliminating feelings of melancholy Americans are missing out on an essential part of life. Read his excellent article: In Praise of Melancholy. Here’s a short excerpt:
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. I am finally fearful of our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?
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. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates that the blues are an aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill.