Posts Tagged ‘Beethoven’

vital living

October 15, 2009

coleridge5“We want to be able to stay up late”– like the poet Coleridge, “frenzied with grief,” past his prime, meditating into the wee hours on life’s meaninglessness— “and think through our confusions.”

Speak for yourself, Eric Wilson. Staying up late, sleeping past dawn, waking in angst and trepidation to worrisome, interminable days of hand-wringing regret followed by dark nights of desperate journaling and substance-abuse… that’s the unhealthy, unhappy profile I’m picturing here.

A better plan: read your Poore Richard, bed down early and rise “when there’s a dawn” in you. (And btw: despite your sneaky attempt to claim him through his “quiet desperation” line, Thoreau was not one of you. He was a morning person, always and cheerfully up at dawn.) I confess I haven’t researched this, it’s just a prejudice at this point, but I’m betting there are fewer depressives amongst us early-birds. That doesn’t make us “shallow” persons, does it?

Rhetorical question, never mind. I ought not to take any of this personally, I know… But I do begin to resent the insinuation that people like me and Willy James, who’ve fought for nearly every inch of contented flourishing we’re managing to hold against the charging darkness, are somehow more “passive,” simple, comfortable etc. than those who habitually frown and weep and congratulate themselves for being so “capaciously complex” in their “durable melancholia.”

They’re sounding the depths of “life’s insoluble mysteries,” the constitutional melancholics, working harder to maintain their anhedonic edge than we do to get over ours? They dwell (with Emily Dickinson) in “a fairer house” of possibility than we, “more numerous of windows, superior for doors”? Doubtful.jameschocorua(James once bragged of his summer home in Chocorua, N.H., that it featured 14 doors “all opening out,” a personal resemblance his sister was quick to notice. I have fewer doors myself, but make frequent, eager egress through them. And unlike Leibniz, Mr. Superficiality Incarnate, I do windows.)

And did you just call us “trivial liars”– ?!– but I’ll let that pass.

It does seem, though, that the stereotypically happy person is a straw-stuffed caricature , as drawn here: someone foolish enough to think it possible to “escape melancholia in an existence in which we are doomed to suffer physical and psychical pain… If we are honest, we cannot.”

The reality is that hard-won happiness must suffer at least as many blows to the spirit as reflexive sadness. No Exit. Nobody thinks so. Save your straw.

Reflecting on Beethoven, Wilson writes: His “simultaneous detachment from and attachment to death is an essential dimension of the melancholy life.”

That’s interesting, but it’s not the exclusive province of melancholia. Jennifer Hecht, speaking to and for us all, says: “Make yourself face death and become familiar with it. But once you have done that, you have to firmly guide your attention back to life. Just walk your mind away from the dark edge of the beautiful springtime field and into its lovely center.”

It finally dawns on me: Wilson is a Sartrean in American clothing, even echoing the author of L’Être et le néant‘s contempt for “the perfectly happy American life” and concluding that non-melancholics prefer “a world in which everyone simply accept(s) the status quo… a dystopia of ubiquitous placid grins… a flatland.”

They, we (the indictment continues) “hide behind the smile” out of “fear of the world’s complexity” and of death.

And here’s the biggest surprise: melancholics like himself are holding out for something much better than happiness: “ecstatic joy.” He’s joking, right?

No. Invoking Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) Wilson insists: “We (melancholics) know that we are going to die… this very death is a spur to vital living.”

Indeed, an honest and unblinking acquaintance with your own mortality can be the clarion moment of awakening for those traveling the path of real happiness. (Joy, sorry.) It’s just that nothing in Wilson’s screed to this point has remotely resembled such a journey. This late and sudden ode to joy is out of left field, and is about as stirring as Matt Holliday’s recent acrobatics there. So Wilson, too, now drops the ball. And the world still turns.

Poor John Lennon. “You’re born in pain, and pain is what we’re in most of the time.” If he’d known how it would all end for him, tragically, stupidly, absurdly, would his pain have been intensified? Or would he have noticed and savored all that was not painful in his eventful, impactful, foreshortened life? We’ll never know.

But how ironic, that pitiable, pathetic, effortlessly-munitioned Mark David Chapman— like all the Mark David Chapmans of the world, they’re sadly legion– confused, disturbed, up late outside the Dakota, Salinger’s Catcher in hand– misperceived his victim as charmed, exalted, unburdened by life’s demands… until its senseless, sudden obliteration at Chapman’s uncreative, melancholic impulse. Hardly a “spur to vital living.”