We're all melancholy, baby

The good news, according to polls, is that more than 80 percent of us are happy. The bad news, according to Eric G. Wilson? American happiness is unusually bland. The Jeffersonian pursuit may turn out to be a mirage, a song we whistle in the gathering dark, an evasion rather than a fulfillment. Happy Valentine's Day from the book pages.

Wilson's argument is important, and he makes it with passion. Heavy sadness is not only a human inevitability, but it may be our best shot at profundity. Melancholia, to use the older, more brooding word, admits the world's full spectrum of shadow and sun; it "reconciles us to realities." Balanced with intervals of joy, sadness gives life dimension and depth, even inspiration. To live otherwise is to breathe with one lung, to fly with one wing.

Books defending melancholy often develop into defenses of art. Like writers from William James to Kay Redfield Jamison, Wilson, a professor of English at Wake Forest University, offers brief, compelling portraits of creative types who manage genius from their gloom. The heroes here -- Melville, Blake, Keats, Beethoven, Bruce Springsteen and many more -- find that without internal darkness they don't produce artistic light. Wilson quotes Joni Mitchell: "chase away the demons, and they will take the angels with them."

But sadness is not for artists alone. In fact, one of the strengths of this book is its attempt to democratize melancholy, to establish its power for everyone, not just poets and songwriters. It is a condition of life not a specialty of art that we grow sad. The prospect of death makes this unavoidable. Human limitations make it universal. "To live," Socrates said on his own deathbed, "that is to be sick a long time."

Still, while it's clear that we glimpse things through melancholy that we miss while content, the paradox remains tough to embrace. For one thing, the distance from melancholy to debilitating depression is not marked by a fine line but by something more like a bank of fog. "Against Happiness" is not a book about clinical depression, and it doesn't downplay mental illness. Wilson is talking about the tendency to want to cure or flee from ordinary sadness, and he builds a strong case. But even nonclinical depression can breed the opposite of creative productivity. Sometimes melancholy does lead to a deep awareness of things. Occasionally, great works are produced as a consequence. And yet sometimes melancholy just breeds more of itself. Not every funk, in other words, is waiting to be a song.

The second strand of Wilson's argument is that Americans are obsessed with superficial happiness: lives filled with Hallmark moments and Hollywood endings. But where the insights of his meditations on sadness seem hard-won (and in one stretch movingly personal), the case against happiness in its American guise becomes ungenerous. Wilson's America is a land of dull consumers, "people bent on taking in huge mouthfuls of happy meals, hoping too for the special prize, earned just for eating an imitation of a real hamburger." It is a land in which melancholics sit at cafe tables alone "while the crowds around them guffaw at the least thing." It is a country of happy people sequestered in gated communities, "Botoxed to the max" and taking "pills meant to simply ease their pain in order to turn themselves once more into smiling faces." Wilson's argument against a certain easy happiness becomes infected with resentment, and that resentment blurs the book's vision. There is too much contempt, not enough empathy. Wilson writes, for example, of "vacationing masses" with their "paper-thin minds" who "want to be perennial tourists." These same people "are rather easily able to reduce earth's tragedies into safe clichés, lazy chitchat." Perpetually smiling, they beam "with all their might." In places like these Wilson commits the very sin he is accusing his subjects of: shallow attention, one-dimensional judgment. His portraits of the "masses" become cartoons.

One of the unhappiest thinkers in Western history (and no fan of herd mentalities) taught us otherwise: Everyone who dreams, Nietzsche asserted, is an artist. And if no one is without interest or conflict in sleep, surely people aren't as unremarkable in their waking desire for happiness as Wilson makes them out to be. How urgent and bold is his call for more nuance -- emotional as well as intellectual nuance. He's right: The road to complexity is paved with melancholy stones. But is the mortar necessarily so bitter?