Saturday, January 08, 2005

Dedicated to Darkness

Roger Simon links to a fascinating article from a well-known psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman - "Misreporting Science in the New York Times: Against Happiness". Dr. Seligman notes that in the choice of articles on psychology it chooses to print, and in the ones it ignores, the NY Times seems to be making a concerted effort to consistently display life as full of "unmitigated tragedy, violence, and meaninglessness." He mentions several well-written books that have never been reviewed by the NY Times Book Review, and some articles on recent research on happiness that never made it to press:

What do these books and stories have in common? They are good news. They suggest that virtue, well-being, nobility, happiness, and meaning are all within the realm of human possibility, and that life is not just unmitigated tragedy, violence, and meaninglessness. And they are based on solid, painstaking science involving hundreds of thousands of subjects, hundreds of refereed articles, and scores of doctoral dissertations from the most reputable universities in the world.

But take a shoddily researched and truly lightweight account that can be run as “Against Happiness,” and it leads.

Yes, there are professional pessimists. Yes, there are nattering nabobs of negativism. There are media dedicated to the dividends of darkness that both reflect a cultural bias toward despair and simultaneously shape it. They are enormously influential, and if you wonder why our young people are in the midst of an epidemic of depression and meaninglessness in the presence of unprecedented wealth, education, and opportunity, you might start with what they read in the New York Times.

Indeed, you might. And then you could go on to explore the literature of the last 20+ years; the movies and culture that are dedicated to the "darkness" to which Dr. Seligman refers. I am very very familiar with it. It is why I turned to science fiction and fantasy, where there are still moral universes to get lost in. It is why books like Harry Potter have achieved phenomenal success and why Lord of the Rings was so profoundly successful. They were bright, glittering stars in the midst of a cultural black hole that was sucking all the joy, hope and love from life.

Do you think I am exaggerating? Take a look at the books the NY Times considers worthwhile. They are filled with despairing and hopeless people. Often, their characters aren't even likable. But they supposedly deal with very profound and important issues and are considered "serious" and "literary". I used to try to read some of them, but I found I couldn't ever finish them. They made me sick and gave me nightmares (and I'm not talking about Stephen King novels either). I finally found a pardigm I could live with: If it was recommended by the NY Times and considered an "important" work, I avoided it the same way I try to avoid death.

I finally abandoned reading the NY Times Review of Books entirely after they decided to EXCLUDE the most popular book of the latter part of the 20th century in the Best Seller List and banish it to the Children's Book List. I am referring, of course, to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, which is sneered at by the true literary establishment. As was Tolkien's Lord of the Rings 40 years ago. As is science fiction and mystery (unless it conforms to the "darkness" criteria, I've noticed). And, as for romance novels (and believe it or not, there are truly excellent novels in this genre, that are comparable to the works of Austen, Bronte and others) the anti-intellectual stigma attached to reading such novels says all you need to know about the attitude of the true literary establishment, as exemplified by the NY Times.

Don't get me wrong. One of my majors in college long ago was English Literature. I don't believe that all books need to have happy sappy endings. On the contrary, if books are to teach us about life and all the important issues that involves, it is often necessary to face unpleasantness and pain. Truly wonderful art helps you to do that, while simultaneously rejoicing in the human spirit.

Shall we discuss many of the so-called "artsy" movies? Especially the ones that open in special theaters (if it appeals to the "masses" it must be insipid)? Almost all of them are life-hating, pathetic romps dedicated to the twin themes of despair and hopelessness. Or catering to the darkness within men's souls--if not celebrating it. Few and far between are the ones that even explore the light and the goodness of those souls. After being told over and over again that happiness is impossible in this world; that those who pursue it are simple and shallow; and that , as C3PO in "Star Wars"--a wonderful robotic symbol of this mindset--says, "misery and suffering is our lot in life" --is it really any wonder that my profession is overwhelmed by the unhappiness of our fellow humans? They can't even tolerate having their candidate lose an election without suffering post-traumatic stress. (I had a patient once who became suicidal because her son had to have surgery and she felt life had no meaning or purpose...and then I found out that her 30 year old son was scheduled for bunion surgery, and I'm afraid I lost all sympathy for her plight).

Truly, there aren't enough antidepressants in the universe to reverse the onslaught of depression and malaise that is aimed at our minds from sun up to sun set that would have us believe that everything is a disaster. Like Denethor, the doomed Warden of Gondor, who has spent years listening to Sauron tell him how hopeless it is to oppose him (in the movie Return of the King); the media --and all those who listen to the Sauron's of today-- would like us to pour oil on the funeral pyre and just light it--because we can't win against evil; we can't win against chaos; we can't win against darkness. We are doomed. Doomed!


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