Saturday, January 19, 2008

Singin' the blues

Terry Glavin, with a little help from his friends here and in comments, indulges in a touch of melancholia and posts some ravishing Irish music. The spur is an essay by Eric G Wilson.

I am not quite as taken with the article as Terry. I suppose it makes a change from Buntingesque laments about the misery of life to have someone decrying happiness, but the structure of the argument is the same. Wilson's intellectual melancholy is somehow authentic and constructive, whilst the happiness of the proles having fun is trivial, shallow and dangerous.

His comment that, "Only with the help of constant sorrow can this dying world be changed, enlivened, pushed to the new" is simply Catholicism transposed. It is also empirically untrue. Suffering does not automatically ennoble; many of those who have grown up with violence or abuse become violent or abusers themselves. Sorrow can breed justice, but it can also beget arbitrary hatred and revenge, allied to a complete indifference to the suffering of others.

When Wilson writes on aesthetics, he is on more solid ground as it is undeniable that some of the most ravishing art is painfully tragic. I love the novels of Hardy, but they are almost unbearable in the inevitability of tragedy, which runs through the plot of every book.

How then do we cope with sorrow in art, politics and the everyday, inevitable moments of grief in our own life? Sadness brings sympathy and tenderness, solidarity and friendship, but unrelieved sorrow is crippling. Francis got it right in comments when he mentioned the importance of hope. Hardy's novels are angry, but they point the way to a better world. They are not optimistic, expressing a blind faith that things will turn out for the best, but they are hopeful. The late American historian Christopher Lasch put this beautifully,

Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right … Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it.

Sorrow at the condition of the world may be a starting point, but the moment that hope bursts through the clouds of despair is the moment of revelation and transcendence. It is this that changes the world. But so too is the moment we have a good laugh. So come on lads, let's liven up a bit, raise a glass or two, and get back to the serious business of enjoying life. Here's something to help on the way.


Jura Watchmaker said...

Katy Evans-Bush has also commented on Wilson's essay:

I have a few more comments, which I'll maybe post later today.

Jura Watchmaker said...

Regarding the comment on Catholicism, you have a point. But the Catholic Church could take just about any human characteristic and make it pathological.

I find Wilson's essay interesting, if in places a little too flowery for my liking. And the inclusion of Keats' "Ode on melancholy" is a joy.

But I do have some problems with this critique of happiness. For one thing, I object to the comments on depression. This is a disease, which even in its milder forms can have a seriously negative impact on its sufferers' quality of life.

There may be a correlation between depression and artistic genius, but it is a logical fallacy to think that an artist need be depressed in order to create great art. Yes, we could do without the mass-consumption of seratonin-inhibiting 'happy pills' that numb the brain, but tolerate depression?

People can be content, even happy, and still be fully cognisant of their and others' reality, suffering and all. They can be both melancholic and joyful at the same time.

Eric Wilson can speak for himself, as can you and I. But our vision of the world is our own, and we should avoid projecting it onto others. It may be obvious to all but the autistic that some people hide behind "painted grins". On the other hand, some adopt forced scowls in an attempt to look serious and sophisticated. The majority probably reflect their inner selves, to varying degrees.

I do think Wilson is onto something, but his argument rests in places on the straw man of "American happiness", and has a whiff of the miserablist about it.

The Plump said...

Agreed. I also thought the bit about a real rose being more beautiful than a porcelain one because it dies is especially silly. It is less beautiful because it is naff - and he wouldn't say the same thing about, say, Van Gough's Sunflowers,

mikeovswinton, keepin the faith said...

If its a touch of Irish melancholy that you are after, get onto Youtube, and put the following two terms in; "Jackie Wilson" "Danny Boy", and prepare to listen to the greatest voice of the twentieth century at its best.

The Plump said...

And after just opening a yucky chain email with a PowerPoint and suitable slushy music telling me to be happy I now need melancholy. This Wilson guy has a point. I shall cultivate it - or at least become as belligerent as Will.

Will said...

I do read this place you know -- fucking hell.

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