Putting the “Pin” Back in Happiness

Yesterday on NPR, novelist Eric Wilson talked about his book Against Happiness, an argument for melancholia — what he calls “mild to moderate sadness” — as an acceptable and fulfilling mode of moving (or maybe not) through the world.

Intrigued, I immediately Googled him hoping that in his author photo he would be curled up against his bathroom wall, crying, in pajamas. It turns out there are two successful Eric Wilson writers. The Eric Wilson who did not publish Against Happiness, who instead — according to his website bio — refuses to stop fighting for his faith in a Jesus “who is bigger than our self-centeredness,” looks like even a locust plague couldn’t get him down:


Happy-Wilson’s thrillers include Dark To Mortal Eyes and The Best of Evil. Doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of serotonin, right? Wrong. The latter is about a man who watched his mother get shot before his eyes but somehow learned to overcome a graphic — and might I suggest unhappy? — past. In a CCM weblog interview, Happy-Wilson offered the following optimism:

“Somehow, through the pain and the crud and the doubts, God’s character remains the same. He is good. If we can hold onto that one fact, everything else is bearable.”

If this Eric Wilson is Sunny D, the other Eric Wilson is like a kale smoothie with a prune add-in: better for you in the end, but a darker, harder sell. There’s no quick fix, no sugar high.


I really like the no-showing-of-teeth smile here. And the soul-patch masquerading as shadow. And the bright backdrop of Living Thing. This isn’t a man who locks himself in the bathroom and sits all mopey in the empty tub, after all — he’s mopey outside! This is a Wilson I can relate to.

Sad-Wilson identifies with the brooders. He turns to the 19th Century Romantic Poets. He loves a good moor, a steep crag. Sad-Wilson writes:

“Melancholy irony—Romantic irony—is the ability to play among various forms without becoming overly attached to any one form.”

This is not a flimsy excuse to sleep around. It’s a complex statement that paraphrases Keats’ Negative Capability. Great poets, great people, possess the ability to live in interstice, to relish the inconclusive. They can empathize with others because they have vital imaginations. Negative Capability cultivates mystery over judgment. It’s an artistic form of sympathy, and yes, sometimes sympathizing gives you the blues. I’m sort of resentful that God’s character doesn’t change, like Happy-Wilson claims.

In the All Things Considered segment, Sad-Wilson mentioned Keats and his belief that beauty is inextricable from death. A flower is so lovely precisely because it can not last. It’s like time-based sculpture or edible art. Why create something to see it put in a mouth? Because that’s the nature of beauty. It’s linked to sadness which is linked to the transitory.


(Keats, also a fan of the no-showing-of-teeth smile.)

I feel like Happy-Wilson is Sad-Wilson’s nemesis. I wonder if I have a writer nemesis myself, what she would be like. (I think she’s always on time, keeps a clean fridge, and enjoys data entry). Granted, maybe I’m not giving Happy-Wilson a fair shake. I haven’t read his books.

I agree with Sad-Wilson, that American pill-popping consumerism isn’t the answer to our problems. To me, neither is God. The idea of Negative Capability — of deep human understanding, of gracious character study, of focus on the here without regard to a there reward — seems our best shot.

Tony Hoagland wrote, in his poem “Reasons to Survive November” :

“I shove joy like a knife
into my own heart over and over”

Joy can be violent, a downright death. I guess the question is, How much knifing can you take? Maybe I should read The Best of Evil.


Click here for the NPR Sad-Wilson interview in its entirety.


3 responses to “Putting the “Pin” Back in Happiness

  1. Becca I caught this NPR piece too and found it interesting for mostly the same reasons you did. Thanks for this further analysis- very thoughtful. “It’s linked to sadness which is linked to the transitory.”- brilliant! We are, culturally, so self-involved now that we cannot often see what is really happening around us. We only register our reactions to it. Transitory, every bit of it. Turn the page. The End. Not.

  2. it’s probably good that this wasn’t your valentine’s day post… or was that statement alone a little to happy-wilson???


  3. a little ‘too’ i meant – that’s one of my biggest pet peaves, and i can’t believe i did it myself – been TOO busy at work today, i think 🙂

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