In Praise of Melancholy

photo credit: Michelle Brea

Some eloquent thoughts concerning our tendency to settle for vanilla, complacent “happiness” in place of the reality of life and true emotional diversity.

The psychological world is now abuzz with a new field, positive psychology, devoted to finding ways to enhance happiness through pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Psychologists practicing this brand of therapy are leaders in a novel science, the science of happiness. Mainstream publishers are learning from the self-help industry and printing thousands of books on how to be happy. Doctors offer a wide array of drugs that might eradicate depression forever. It seems truly an age of almost perfect contentment, a brave new world of persistent good fortune, joy without trouble, felicity with no penalty.

Why are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts sliced away and discarded like so much waste? What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, this desperate contentment? (…)

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. (…)

Suffering the gloom, inevitable as breath, we must further accept this fact that the world hates: We are forever incomplete, fragments of some ungraspable whole. Our unfinished natures — we are never pure actualities but always vague potentials — make life a constant struggle, a bout with the persistent unknown. But this extension into the abyss is also our salvation. To be only a fragment is always to strive for something beyond ourselves, something transcendent. That striving is always an act of freedom, of choosing one road instead of another. Though this labor is arduous — it requires constant attention to our mysterious and shifting interiors — it is also ecstatic, an almost infinite sounding of the exquisite riddles of Being.

To be against happiness is to embrace ecstasy. Incompleteness is a call to life. Fragmentation is freedom. The exhilaration of never knowing anything fully is that you can perpetually imagine sublimities beyond reason. On the margins of the known is the agile edge of existence. This is the rapture, burning slow, of finishing a book that can never be completed, a flawed and conflicted text, vexed as twilight.

Excerpted from an essay by Eric G. WIlson, which is adapted from his book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melanchonly, being published this month.

Reality Sandwich

I’m contributing to Reality Sandwich now, a new site that describes itself thusly:

Reality Sandwich is a web magazine for this time of intense transformation. Our subjects run the gamut from sustainability to shamanism, alternate realities to alternative energy, remixing media to re-imagining community, holistic healing techniques to the promise and perils of new technologies. We hope to spark debate and engagement by offering a forum for voices ranging from the ecologically pragmatic to the wildly visionary (which, to our delight, sometimes turn out to be the one and the same). Counteracting the doom-and-gloom of the daily news, Reality Sandwich is a platform for voices conveying a different vision of the transformations we face. Our goal is to inspire psychic evolution and a kind of earth alchemy.

Aw yeah my kind of humans. They’ve got a ton of really excellent contributers already on the roster, Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky) and Daniel Pinchbeck just to name a couple that ring familiar. I’ll be posting occasional links and commentary in the link blog – check it out if you like reality. And sandwiches.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand: 6 Billion Others

6,000 interviews and 4,500 hours (450 translated and subtitled) from people in 65 countries. Bertrand conceived of the idea while traveling and shooting for The Earth From Above. The full project is forthcoming in 2008, but there is sample footage available now on the website.

Created at the beginning of 2003, “6 billion others” aims to create a sensitive and human portrait of the planet’s inhabitants.

Previously: Earth From Above, We Are Cancer

Archimedes Palimpsest: New Aristotle Text Found

At first glance, the manuscript appears to be a medieval Christian prayer book.

But on the same pages as the prayers, experts using a high-tech imaging system have discovered commentary likely written in the third century A.D. on a work written around 350 B.C. by the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

The discovery is the third ancient text to emerge from the layers of writing on the much reused pages. In 2002 researchers had uncovered writings by the mathematician Archimedes and the fourth-century B.C. politician Hyperides.

Last year one of the pages was found to contain a famous work by Archimedes about buoyancy that had previously been known only from an incomplete Latin translation.

Project director William Noel, curator of manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, called the latest discovery a “sensational find.”

Seeing Red

image credit: Ro Irving

Paul Broks contemplates the mystery of conciousness in a recent essay written in response to Nicholas Humphrey’s latest book: Seeing Red: A Study in Conciousness.

Phenomenal consciousness is about the temporal “depth” of the present moment. The subjective “now” is, paradoxically, extended in time: it is “temporally thick.” We experience it not as an infinitely thin sliver of time but as a moment in which times present, past and future overlap. We travel through life as in a “time ship,” which “has a prow and stern and room inside for us to move around.” The problem is that the notion of the “extended present” is fundamentally incoherent to the commonsense mind. Our experience (“the thick moment"—an amalgam of past, present and future) is at odds with our understanding of the linearity of time. We can’t get our heads around those ineffable qualities of consciousness because, as the philosopher Natika Newton points out, the very nature of the X factor makes it, "analytically, ostensively and comparatively indefinable.” According to Humphrey (…) it is precisely this that gives consciousness its mysterious, out-of-this-world qualities, and creates the irresistible intuition of mind-body duality. Nature has performed a stupendous conjuring trick: the illusion of the soul. It is an illusion that at once creates and valorises us as conscious entities. It is thereby an adaptive illusion. Consciousness matters, says Humphrey, “because its function is to matter. It has been designed to create in human beings a Self whose life is worth pursuing.” Even beyond death.

Explorer Wade Davis on the Ethnosphere

If you can listen past his voice – trembling with excitement – National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis, here speaking at TED 2003, has some excellent insight to share from his travels. Here he discusses world cultures, dying languages and unique spiritual practices including tribal psychoactive rituals.

On a variant of DMT:

To have that powder blown up your nose is rather like being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with baroque paintings and landing in a sea of electricity.

… and on how one particular ethnic group distinguishes the subtle variants of a plant species they use to make Ayahuasca, a psychoactive tea:

You ask the Indians and they say the plants talk to us. Well what does that mean? This tribe, the Cofán, has 17 varieties of Ayahuasca, all of which they distinguish at great distance in the forest, all of which are referable to our eye as one species. And then you ask them how they establish their taxonomy. And they say, ‘I thought you knew something about plants, don’t you know anything?’ And I said ‘no’. Well it turns out you take each of the 17 varieties on the night of a full moon and it sings to you in a different key. Now that’s not going to get you a PhD at Harvard but it’s a lot more interesting than counting stamens.

The problem is that even those of us sympathetic with the plight of indigenous people view them as quaint and colorful but somehow reduced to the margins of history as the “real world”, meaning our world, moves on.

Wade has written several books including The Serpent and the Rainbow & Light at the Edge of the World.