Magazine article The American Conservative

Ode to Joy

Magazine article The American Conservative

Ode to Joy

Article excerpt

Ode to Joy [Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, Eric G. Wilson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 176 pages]

IN A VILLAGE JUNK STORE in the Adirondacks, I recently found a 1950 jack-in-the-box sitting in its original paper carton. It was perfectly preserved except that the little crank to wind out pop-goes-the-weasel was defunct. Wind it as you would, the box was silent and jack was permanently immured. Naturally, I bought it.

If one goes searching for evidence of wistful melancholia in American life, junk stores are a good place to begin. Here are the campaign buttons of candidates who paraded into dust; there, the chipped china and tarnished silverware of Thanksgivings past; bins of longunplayed phonograph records; keepsakes transformed into memento mari.

Discarded toys, however, contain the purest concentrated pathos: rosebuds shoveled into the furnace of time.

Americans as a whole may be punishingly ignorant of history, but we love the flotsam of the past, as evidenced by the thousands of junk stores and antiquaries, not to mention flea markets, garage sales, and eBay auctions. Bargain-hunting hardly begins to explain this. Junkstore commerce is mainly about the sentiments that objects conjure from us, from nostalgia to irony, touched everywhere with a sunbeam of sadness.

Eric Wilson's new book Against Happiness is the work of a cultural critic who has somehow missed all this. Surrounded by the vast landscape of melancholic remembrance in American life, he sees only a nation in love with cheap and superficial contentment.

He directs his blowtorch of disappointment at his countrymen for 151 pages-shorter than a migraine but perhaps long enough. The main thread of his two-stranded book is Wilson's argument that melancholy is a creative force in human life and, by fleeing from it into Happy Meals, Prozac, and mere consumerism, we flatten our souls. The other, more elusive thread isn't an argument at all but a tone of luxuriant disdain for the American character. Wilson's America is a place of giddy stupidity, in love with shopping and deaf to suffering-including our own.

This is not just an indictment of contemporary Americans. His critique stretches back beyond the credit-fueled consumption orgies of our day and even the bubbles of yesteryear. He takes it all back to the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. We may be accustomed to seeing those dour religious recusants as the very embodiment of melancholic exile, performing their "errand in the wilderness," but no, says Wilson, "they believed that America, that fresh and innocent country, would fulfill all their desires for religious bliss." Wilson misreads Pilgrim theology, which trusted in the bliss of the world to come rather than the bliss of New England winters, but no matter. His point is simply that Americans have been seeking the life of Riley from the get-go. Ben Franklin also gets a whipping for encouraging Americans to practice optimistic thrift, though it is a bit hard to tell which Wilson dislikes more: the optimism or the aspiration for material success.

Wilson spots one more original sin in the founding of America. When Jefferson put the words "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," into the Declaration, he was adjusting John Locke's phrase of 1690: "life, liberty, and property." As Wilson sees it, this wasn't so much a change as a euphemism. The wording "secretly" connects pursuing happiness with seeking property, as if "the true road to earthly joy is through the accumulation of stuff." Apparently, ever since, Americans have been in on the secret. Though it is "hidden" in the Declaration of Independence, "many folks past and present" understood it. America "was and still is the place where one can find happiness through acquisition." This kind of glib judgment is, unfortunately, the bedrock of Wilson's analysis. He can't or won't see "the accumulation of stuff in relation to the other ways we pursue happiness, such as marriage, family, religion, education, friendship, the arts, charity, and service. …

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