Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, June 4, 2015

the abolition of sadness

I want to follow up on a recent post, which considered, among other things, the ways that our investment of energy, attention, and money in communications technologies might constrain innovation in other areas. In light of that argument, consider Katie Roiphe’s answer to the question “Which Contemporary Habits Will Be Most Unthinkable 100 Years From Now?”:

Sadness. Drug companies will have developed an over-the-counter, side-effect-free pill (or patch or lotion) that combats the feeling. People will swallow this pill casually, in the same way they take Advil, when they feel the first glimmers of melancholy. It will have no stigma and will be as common and unexamined as the Band‑Aids and Tylenol in every medicine cabinet.

So suppose this happens. What effect will that have on innovation and creativity, in the arts and in humanistic scholarship as well as in the sciences, especially medicine? What do we profit if we abolish sadness without abolishing the things that make us sad?


  • I wonder how the abolition of boredom has robbed us of new inventions or books.

  • I can't help but think of John Milton's two great epics: "Paradise" and "Paradise Squared."

  • If he had only lived to complete Paradise Maxx!

  • From the first essay in the first issue of The New Atlantis, back in 2003:

    What about pharmacologically assisted happy souls? Painful and shameful memories are disquieting; guilty consciences disturb sleep; low self-esteem, melancholy, and world-weariness besmirch the waking hours. Why not memory blockers for the former, mood brighteners for the latter, and a good euphoriant — without risks of hangovers or cirrhosis — when celebratory occasions fail to be jolly? For let us be clear: if it is imbalances of neurotransmitters — a modern equivalent of the medieval doctrine of the four humors — that are responsible for our state of soul, it would be sheer priggishness to refuse the help of pharmacology for our happiness, when we accept it guiltlessly to correct for an absence of insulin or thyroid hormone.

    And yet, there seems to be something misguided about the pursuit of utter psychic tranquility, or the attempt to eliminate all shame, guilt, and painful memories. Traumatic memories, shame, and guilt, are, it is true, psychic pains. In extreme doses, they can be crippling. Yet they are also helpful and fitting. They are appropriate responses to horror, disgraceful conduct, and sin, and, as such, help teach us to avoid them in the future. Witnessing a murder should be remembered as horrible; doing a beastly deed should trouble one’s soul. Righteous indignation at injustice depends on being able to feel injustice’s sting. An untroubled soul in a troubling world is a shrunken human being. More fundamentally, to deprive oneself of one’s memory — including and especially its truthfulness of feeling — is to deprive oneself of one’s own life and identity.

    Second, these feeling states of soul, though perhaps accompaniments of human flourishing, are not its essence. Ersatz pleasure or feelings of self-esteem are not the real McCoy. They are at most shadows divorced from the underlying human activities that are the essence of flourishing. Not even the most doctrinaire hedonist wants to have the pleasure that comes from playing baseball without swinging the bat or catching the ball. No music lover would be satisfied with getting from a pill the pleasure of listening to Mozart without ever hearing the music. Most people want both to feel good and to feel good about themselves, but only as a result of being good and doing good.

    Finally, there is a connection between the possibility of feeling deep unhappiness and the prospects for achieving genuine happiness. If one cannot grieve, one has not loved. To be capable of aspiration, one must know and feel lack. As Wallace Stevens put it: Not to have is the beginning of desire. There is, in short, a double-barreled error in the pursuit of ageless bodies and factitiously happy souls: human fulfillment depends on our being creatures of need and finitude and hence of longings and attachment.

    —Leon R. Kass, "Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls"

  • Your question about the effect of flattened affect need not wait for the development of an everyday, nonprescription version of Huxley's "soma." With and without pharmacological assistance, it's already possible to see many numb, nearly catatonic people who have escaped their former lives of quiet desperation and can scarcely be roused by reports of corruption and loss -- so long as those remain at a distance. Have we lost creativity, innovation, and technofixes as a result? Probably, though that's purely hypothetical. Yesterday's tortured genius pouring his energies into compulsions still has contemporary analogues, but on a purely demographic basis, the number as a percentage of the population is diminished now that the masses have been so well managed and calmed.

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