There’s Nothing Literary About Being Sad

November 2, 2022 | 6 books mentioned 5 min read


It is a sorry thing, in literature, to be happy. “Happy families are all alike,” Tolstoy says, devoting his hundreds of pages to the unhappy instead. In fairy tales, the arrival of happily ever after means the story—the good part—has come to an end. “You are a happy man,” Baudelaire once wrote to a critic with whom he disagreed. “I pity you for being so easily happy. A man must fall very low indeed to believe himself happy!”

I once thought the same. As an aspiring writer, I thought happiness was not worth writing about—was not even, perhaps, worth experiencing. “I’ve never written when I was happy,” Jean Rhys told the Paris Review in 1979. “I didn’t want to.” When I was 15 and 16 and 17, words like these stung with a sudden clarity. I’d rather be unhappy, I decided, if it meant I could write—if it meant I had something worth writing about. Sorrow, suffering, anguish, adversity: this was the stuff of books, I thought, and the stuff of which life must be made, if one wanted to become an author of books. When I experienced my first episode of depression at 18, I felt, amid the deadening nothingness, a small sense of relief. There it is. Proof that I could be a writer: that my loving childhood, my general well-being, my failure to develop an eating disorder or drug addiction could yet be overcome. I was depressed—I was a depressive—and so there was hope, still, for my career. Never mind that when depressed I could barely eat or move, let alone put pen to page and urge a world forth. Never mind, I said!

covercoverIn the years that followed, I read accounts of depression by Kay Redfield Jamison and William Styron; I read sweeping studies like The Anatomy of Melancholy and The Noonday Demon. These books comforted and galvanized me, and I thought the book I would someday write might sit beside them: clocking the intricacies of my illness, twining interesting metaphors around its stem. Here was a topic worthy of literature, surely, for the shelves of the bookstores where I worked during those years were filled with such literature: depression memoirs, addiction memoirs, illness memoirs, abuse memoirs, memoirs of grief and loss and trauma and pain. In my mid-twenties, I wrote essays about my depression, about my father’s alcoholism, about the body and all the ways it might be wrought by being wrecked, and I gathered those essays into a collection, which was shortlisted for a prize that went to a manuscript about the author’s schizophrenia. Well, sure, I thought, unbegrudging. She had the more interesting disease; she must have the more interesting material.

coverI set out to write another essay, about a college semester spent in Italy, a man I met there, and the specter of suicide that haunted our time together: he had loaned me Girl with the Curious Hair days before David Foster Wallace killed himself; I had read to him from Cesare Pavese’s notebooks as we sat in the sun-splashed piazzas of Florence, of Siena, of Rome. I tried to work on this death-shadowed essay for a year, but it kept wriggling away from me, refusing to take shape. At some point in the course of writing, depression and suicide had become less interesting than something else glinting through those stories and notebook entries and memories of my time in Italy, for I had not been depressed there—I had been steadily and extraordinarily happy. “Tonight you were suffering,” Pavese once wrote to himself, discussing the nature of pain, but his next entry, three days later, reads in its entirety: “The first breaking-forth of tiny leaves is an outburst of little green flames, jewels appearing among the dead branches that clothe themselves in green and bedeck themselves.”

This began to seem like the more important moment, even in the life of a writer who had gone on to kill himself. And in the essay I was struggling to write, happiness began to seem like the more intriguing question. I wondered if it might be possible to take happiness as a wholly serious literary subject, to consider its role in the creation of art as consistently as I (and so many others) had considered the roles of suffering and sorrow. I wondered if it might be possible to make a different myth than the one in which I had, for so long, believed.

The happiness that interested me was not the ecstasy of Marguerite Porete nor the joy of Zadie Smith. It was neither extreme nor rare but an ordinary thing, a daily happening, mild enough to maintain—for a few months, at least. It was pleasurable, but not solely composed of pleasure; it was sweet, but another taste lingered after the sweetness had passed. Plain old happiness, I wanted to say, and yet the force of my memory, the lure of it, belied that dismissal. There was something there, nagging at my brain, shifting and unsettling.

cover“Happiness is unattainable, it’s extraordinarily mysterious, brilliantly mysterious,” says Marguerite Duras. “Let us never utter this word again.” But I could not obey; I could not stop uttering the word, once discovered: happiness. And once uttered, I realized I was not alone in my fascination with this word and the slight yet insistent feeling it pointed towards; it had been there all along, overlooked, tucked onto the shelves as surely as those countless accounts of illness and injury and abuse. Happiness springs from the page as Clarissa Dalloway considers “what she loved: life; London; this moment of June” and spirals through the poems of Jack Gilbert, who writes, “We must risk delight.” In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin gently scolds my younger, pain-besotted self: “The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid… But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else.”

coverThe more I read with an eye toward happiness, the more I found it: not only in books I’d loved long ago, but on the minds of contemporaries. I was not the only one who had bought into the myth of suffering as requisite to art; I was not the only one interested in an alternative to that ancient, dangerous belief. Speaking in an interview about his story “The Frog King,” Garth Greenwell said, “It’s an aesthetic failing but also a moral one, it seems to me now, to see happiness, even very ordinary happiness, as somehow less profound, variegated, interesting, less accommodating of insight, than other kinds of experience.” In Black PaperTeju Cole writes, “Henry de Montherlant is credited with saying that ‘happiness writes in white ink on a white page,’ but I believe that happiness is no less complex an emotion than sorrow.”

Happiness writes in white ink on a white page. When I first read it, I understood the quote as another dismissal: happiness was a blank space, a lack. Happiness had nothing to say. But I have since taken these words—whatever their author’s intention—to mean otherwise. White ink on a white page is not the same as an empty page. To read it, we must simply look closer, lift the flame higher, glance aslant. We must make tracings or rubbings, pressing our fingers to the paper’s warp and weft. We must rise to the strange challenge of happiness.

In her interview with the Paris Review, Rhys goes on to say, “When I think about it, if I had to choose, I’d rather be happy than write.” An addendum I’d previously forgotten, or perhaps ignored altogether. What an impossible concept this would have been to the ambitious, angst-soaked teenager I was—I would not have rather been anything than write. But now—so many depressive episodes behind me, so many months of more ordinary sorrows—I understand the impulse, though I reject the premise. But Jean, I want to say, you don’t have to choose. There are stories to be told of happiness, images to be turned inside out, philosophies to be built and built upon. Happiness is not a clear pane but cut glass, multifaceted. (The essay I thought I was writing about Italy turned out to be a book, my happiness demanding chapter after chapter.) There is no coming to the end of it. Let the pages—white-inked, life-strewn—pile up. Let the tiny leaves break forth and bedeck themselves.

is the author of The Traces. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Believer, and the Paris Review. She lives in Minnesota.

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