In Montaigne’s day, sadness held an exalted place, one associated with wisdom, even genius. He rebelled against this — which is unsurprising, given his admiration of the Stoics — but I wonder if Montaigne today, in this highly anti-melancholy age, would even bother to express these views:
I neither like it nor think well of it, even though the world, by common consent, has decided to honour it with special favour. Wisdom is decked out in it; so are Virtue and Conscience – a daft and monstrous adornment ….The Stoics forbid this emotion to their sages as being base and cowardly.
While we don’t quite consider melancholy to be base and cowardly today, we have medicalized sadness to a point that we’ve created a $10 billion a year antidepressant industry. Whether these drugs are overprescribed is a subject for a future essay.
Getting back to sadness, a new story in Slate reviews recent psychological studies that found “subjects consistently underestimated how dejected others were–and likely wound up feeling more dejected as a result.”
In reviewing and extrapolating from these studies, Slate’s Libby Copeland highlighted a familiar contemporary phenomenon:
Any parent who has posted photos and videos of her child on Facebook is keenly aware of the resulting disconnect from reality, the way chronicling parenthood this way creates a story line of delightfully misspoken words, adorably worn hats, dancing, blown kisses. Tearful falls and tantrums are rarely recorded, nor are the stretches of pure, mind-blowing tedium. We protect ourselves, and our kids, this way; happiness is impersonal in a way that pain is not. But in the process, we wind up contributing to the illusion that kids are all joy, no effort.
As a father of three boys still in diapers, I know exactly what Copeland means. I also wonder if, contrary to the conventional wisdom that Facebook is destroying privacy, whether it’s actually turning everyone into their own PR agent and giving them a platform to whitewash the messiness of everyday life.
On a certain level, Montaigne might approve of building a front. But when I read a passage such as this, I wonder if Montaigne’s brave facade, at least in this point of his project, was masking his own melancholy:
We cannot display our grief or our convictions during the living searing heat of the attack; the soul is then burdened by deep thought and the body is cast down, languishing for love.
If you believe the recent studies, perhaps we should let it out — even if it makes our Facebook pages uncomfortable to read and leads some to believe that we need to be on medication. Perhaps we can’t display our true sadness or grief, but to take that license to present an X-ray of our lives to make everyone more comfortable doesn’t make it easier to deal with the grief — and if you believe the studies, it leads others to create unrealistic expectations for their own lives.
To conclude, I tend to chalk up this Montaigne conclusion to the Facebook effect — early on in his project, he was being self promotional, not honest:
Violent emotions like these have little hold on me. By nature my sense of feeling has a hard skin, which I daily toughen and thicken by arguments.