Whether we admit it or not, we're fascinated by evil. Dark fantasies, morbid curiosities, Schadenfreude: As conventional wisdom has it, these are the symptoms of our wicked side, and we succumb to them at our own peril. But we're still compelled to look whenever we pass a grisly accident on the highway, and there's no slaking our thirst for gory entertainments like horror movies and police procedurals. What makes these spectacles so irresistible?
In Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, the scholar Eric G. Wilson sets out to discover the source of our attraction to the caustic, drawing on the findings of biologists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, and artists. A professor of English literature and a lifelong student of the macabre, Wilson believes there's something nourishing in darkness. "To repress death is to lose the feeling of life," he writes. "A closeness to death discloses our most fertile energies."
His examples are legion, and startling in their diversity. Citing everything from elephant graveyards and Susan Sontag's On Photography to the Tiger Woods sex scandal and Steel Magnolias, Wilson finds heartening truths wherever he confronts death. In Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, the perverse is never far from the sublime. The result is a powerful and delightfully provocative defense of what it means to be human—for better and for worse.
More than any other generation, Americans of today believe in the transformative power of positive thinking. But who says we're supposed to be happy? Where does it say that in the Bible, or in the Constitution? In Against Happiness, the scholar Eric G. Wilson argues that melancholia is necessary to any thriving culture, that it is the muse of great literature, painting, music, and innovation—and that it is the force underlying original insights. Francisco Goya, Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, and Abraham Lincoln were all confirmed melancholics. So enough Prozac-ing of our brains. Let's embrace our depressive sides as the wellspring of creativity. What most people take for contentment, Wilson argues, is living death, and what the majority takes for depression is a vital force. In Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, Wilson suggests it would be better to relish the blues that make humans people.
We love these commands, especially in America, because they appeal to what we want to believe: that there's an authentic self to which we can be true. But while we mock Tricky Dick and Slick Willie, we're inventing identities on Facebook, paying thousands for plastic surgeries, and tuning in to news that simply verifies our opinions. Reality bites, after all, and becoming disillusioned is a downer.
In his new book Keep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life, Eric G. Wilson investigates this phenomenon. Hedraws on neuroscience, psychology, sociology, philosophy, art, film, literature, and his own life to explore the possibility that there's no such thing as unwavering reality. Whether our left brains are shaping the raw data of our right into fabulous stories or we're so saturated by society's conventions that we're always acting out prefab scripts, we can't help but be phony.
But is that really so bad? We're used to being scolded for being fake, but Wilson doesn't scold--because he doesn't think we need to be reprimanded. Our ability to remake ourselves into the people we want to be, or at least remake ourselves to look like the people we want to be, is in fact a magical process that can be liberating in its own way. Because if we're all a bunch of fakes, shouldn't we embrace that? And if everything really is fake, then doesn't the fake become real--really?
In lively prose--honest, provocative, witty, wide-ranging (as likely to riff on Bill Murray as to contemplate Plato)--Keep It Fake answers these questions, uncovering bracing truths about what it means to be human and helping us turn our necessary lying into artful living.
For Keats, we don’t possess but rather make a soul. We do this by imaginatively transforming our suffering into empathy toward humans and nature alike. Tracking this idea in Keats’s tumultuous yet exhilarating life and work, Wilson struggles to envision his depression anew, desperate to overcome the apathy alienating him from his family.
How to Make a Soul offers fresh perspectives on Keats’s pragmatism, irony, comedy, ethics, and aesthetics, but is above all a lyrical celebration of those galvanizing instances when life springs into art.