Monday, May 02, 2011

draft The Second Coming of Smiley Face: Eric Wilson’s “Against Happiness”

A well-known teaching hospital in New England has adopted “laughing yoga” as a therapy. In an article here in the papers the participants are pictured laughing together like crazy monkeys. They laugh when they see each other. They laugh holding hands in circles. They laugh lying down with their heads in a circle. They laugh all the time.

Dr. Madam Kataria of India, Laughing Club founder, says in an interview with of all people, John Cleese, that it helps you unwind the negative effects of stress and also it boosts your immune system.

But what is creepy about it up here is that they pass out buttons to you that are pretty much advanced models of the Smiley Face button that appeared unfortunately in the world in the 1970s to accompany the phrase, “Have a nice day.”

It seems a condition of and even a celebration of ennui; a way of saying: “ . . . I can go no further, but thanks for asking. Have a nice day.” If that is the issue there are time-honored antidotes; hockey, opera, cats, church, Jane Eyre, George Dickel or Maker’s Mark. But something else is afoot here; something about this simplification; something to this lack of complexity. I think Wiki describes Smiley accurately in his first incarnation: “ . . . said to have become a zombifying hollow sentiment, emblematic of Nixon-era America and the passing from the optimism of the Summer of Love into the more cynical decade that followed.”

Eric Wilson, a professor at Wake Forest University and author of the book “Against Happiness” says the creative mind in artist and politician lives instead in melancholy and understands the power of negative thinking. He writes in his blog, “Against Happiness” (

“It's quite possible that Abraham Lincoln's brilliance as a leader came from his chronic melancholy. While Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate states, was overly idealistic and quick to make decisions based on his optimism, Lincoln wasn't afraid to question long-standing assumptions, to deliberate over his many options, and to be sensitive to vagueness. Joshua Wolf Shenk's Lincoln's Melancholy examines this connection between Lincoln's gloom and his creative leadership.”

There was something in the ‘70s that said the major events were over. It is the valley of wu chi; unmanifest karma in slow times, then as now. But as the Smiley button with a bullet hole in the head used in the promo of Alan Moore's fin de siecle "Watchmen" books suggests,unmitigated and detached joy has an unconscious aspect; something dark underneath; something’s not right . . . something is coming.

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