Why the long face?

by 1500 1,500 words
  • Read later or Kindle
    • KindleKindle

Why the long face?

Chatterton by Henry Wallis 1856, Tate Britain. Photo courtesy Wikimedia

Sadness makes us seem nobler, more elegant, more adult. Which is pretty weird, when you think about it

Adam Roberts is a professor of English literature at Royal Holloway University and a science fiction author. His latest book is Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea (2014). He lives near London.

1500 1,500 words
  • Read later
    • KindleKindle

I was listening to Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones album recently, for the first time in many years – the first time, really, since I was a young teenager. I bought it when it came out in 1983 and listened to it over and over. But hearing it again, and particularly listening to the title track, I was struck by a question: how did I take this back then? What did it mean to me, and why did it mean so much?

So: the title song is a beautifully worn-down response to a relationship at its end, a mix of nostalgic glimpses of happier times and a weary, bruised sense of life in the aftermath of some cathartic break-up. Listening to it as a young teenager, still a virgin and almost wholly inexperienced in such emotions, I wonder if I didn’t think this is how I want to feel. I wanted the happiness, but in a retrospective way (because then it’s done and dusted and safe); and I wanted the melancholy because it just seemed so grown-up and sophisticated and suave. I wanted, as an old joke has it, to skip the marriage and go straight to the divorce. After all – and I am hardly the first person to point this out – there is a complex sort of joy in sadness.

But can this be right? Surely what people want is to be happy. Whole philosophies (I’m looking at you, utilitarianism) rest on the premise that more happiness is always and everywhere a good thing. There is a Global Happiness Index, measuring how happy people are (Denmark tops the league). Bhutan even has a Gross National Happiness Commission, with the power to review government policy decisions and allocate resources.

It’s good to be happy sometimes, of course. Yet the strange truth is that we don’t wish to be happy all the time. If we did, more of us would be happy – it’s not as if we in the affluent West lack tools or means to gratify ourselves. Sometimes we are sad because we have cause, and sometimes we are sad because – consciously or unconsciously – we want to be. Perhaps there’s a sense in which emotional variety is better than monotony, even if the monotone is a happy one. But there’s more to it than that, I think. We value sadness in ways that make happiness look a bit simple-minded.

Sadness inspires great art in a way that grinningly eating ice cream in your underpants cannot. In his essay ‘Atrabilious Reflections upon Melancholy’ (1823), Hartley Coleridge (son of Samuel Taylor) praised melancholy as a more refined state of mind than happiness. ‘Melancholy can scarce exist in an undegraded spirit – it cannot exist in a mere animal’ is how he put it:
Melancholy is the only Muse. She is Thalia and Melpomene. She inspired Milton and Michael Angelo, and Swift and Hogarth. All men of genius are melancholy – and none more so than those whose genius is comic. Men (those I mean who are not mere animals) may be divided, according to the kind of their melancholy, into three great classes. Those who seek for the infinite, in contradistinction to the finite – those who seek for the infinite in the finite – and those who seek to degrade the finite by a comparison with the infinite. The first class comprehends philosophers and religionists; the second, poets, lovers, conquerors, misers, stockjobbers, & c.; and the third comprises satirists, comedians, jokers of all kinds, man-haters, and womanhaters, Epicures, and bon-vivants in general.

Melancholy, Coleridge is arguing, is more dignified than happiness. I suspect this is a sense that most people have – that joy is, at root, a kind of idiot pleasure, the idiom of the lobotomy, a balloon just waiting to be popped. Sorrow is somehow more grown-up, because less illusioned. It feels more sincere, more authentic. As she prepared to write Adam Bede (1859), George Eliot copied the following from Thomas Carlyle’s Life of Oliver Cromwell into her notebook: ‘The quantity of sorrow he has, does it not mean withal the quantity of sympathy he has, the quantity of faculty and victory he shall yet have? Our sorrow is the inverted image of our nobleness.’

Because it has some of the colouring of nobility, sadness is also, perhaps, more beautiful than happiness. Philip Larkin’s ‘Money’ (1973) ends:
I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
From long French windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

It Is Intensely Sad would be a pretty good title for a study of Larkin’s verse as a whole. Of course, one reaction to this poem would be to say: ‘Wait just a minute, Phil: you don’t actually mean “it is intensely sad”. You mean “I am intensely sad”. The street, the church, the whole provincial town is doing just fine, thank you, and has no responsibility for your mournfulness, looking down from your long French windows.’ Such a reaction would not diminish Larkin’s achievement, either, for this is indeed the whole point of his poetry: to write, not about the slums, the canal or the church, but about the elegance of melancholy.

Why on earth should melancholy be elegant – or attractive in any other way? On the face of it, it ought to be precisely the sort of thing that evolution breeds out of the race, a prime target for sexual deselection. What female would want to mate with a miserable partner when she could have a happy, smiling one instead? Put like that, of course, the question looks a little ridiculous; as if we’d really prefer to pair off with SpongeBob SquarePants instead of Morrissey. But why? Why would you rather spend time with the latter than the former?

If depression is a foul miasma wreathing the brain, elegant sadness is more like a peacock’s tail, coloured in blue-gentian and rich marine greens

It was Charles Darwin, in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), who noted that sadness manifested the same way in all cultures. For something so ubiquitous, it is tempting to venture an evolutionary explanation. Alas, the anthropological and evolutionary work in this area has focused almost entirely upon depression, which is not quite what we are talking about here. I can tell you with rather grim authority that the difference between elegant ennui and the black dog is like the difference between pleasant intoxication and typhus. Many evolutionary theories have been proposed for depression’s adaptive value, but no one has, so far as I am aware, tried to claim that it is enjoyable.

If depression is a foul miasma wreathing the brain, elegant sadness is more like a peacock’s tail, coloured in blue-gentian and rich marine greens. Is it also universal? To this question, anthropology offers no definitive answer. Yet the condition certainly manifests itself in a suggestive array of cultures. It is the sadness to which the Japanese phrase mono no aware gestures (物の哀れ, literally ‘the beautiful sorrow of things’). It is the haunted simplicity of those musical traditions that spread from Africa into the New World as the Blues. It’s the mixture of strength, energy, pity and melancholy that Claude Lévi-Strauss found in Brazil, encapsulated in the title of his book about his travels there Tristes Tropiques (1955). It’s the insight of Vergil’s Aeneas, as he looks back over his troubled life and forward to troubles yet to some: sunt lacrimae rerum; there are tears in everything, said not mournfully nor hopelessly but as a paradoxical statement about the beauty of the world (Aeneid 1:462).

It would be possible, of course, to construct a ‘cost benefit analysis’ of the sorts of sadness I am describing here. We might suggest that it is a signal that the individual in question has the strength, leisure and sensitivity to indulge in being sad. Saying so invokes what evolutionary scientists call ‘the handicap principle’, a hypothesis first framed by the Israeli evolutionary biologist Amotz Zahavi in 1975. The idea is that extravagant traits such as the highland deer’s massive antlers or the peacock’s tail are useful because they are so ostentatiously expensive, manifestly inconveniencing the owner. They are a way of saying: I’m so strong, my genes are so desirable, that I can afford to schlep about with this manifest – and, by the way, beautiful – disadvantage attached to my body.

Sadness, according to this model, is a kind of conspicuous consumption. It takes more muscles to frown than smile, and maybe that’s the point. It signals ones capacity to squander a resource precisely by squandering it. Any fool can live and be happy. It takes greater strength to live and be sad.

All the same, this analysis loses the most important aspect of this emotion; not that it costs, but that it is beautiful. Happy can be pretty, but some species of sad have access to beauties that happy can never know.

Read more essays on general culture, general psychology and mood & emotion


  • Stan Astan

    Perhaps some are driven to see the beauty in everything - even their own melancholia. We are given only so much time, and ours is to make of it what we wish (of course, under whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.) Maybe it's a matter of fighting despair with despair?
    Could there be a universal sense that conveying hopelessness to someone else is the only useful way of dealing with it? Otherwise, our pain remains locked within the confines of certain oblivion. There are lots of discovered messages in a bottle and letters home from wounded soldiers that would support this.

  • Moo

    Some types of sadness stem out of a victim complex. People who live thinking everyone is out to get them are more annoying than elegant, really.

    • http://www.stephennewton.com/ Stephen Newton

      Either you're on to something here and sadness – or perhaps here we mean depression – is caused by paranoia or you find it difficult to empathise with people when they're down.

      I guess that when Morrisey sings 'Hang the DJ', one might think he's positioning himself as a victim, but that would be a rather simplistic reading. I don't think he actually feels persecuted by the DJ, rather he sees him as a terribly irritating happy idiot.

  • lewlorton

    There is an unfortunate turn of phrase in the fifth paragraph:"Sadness
    inspires great art in a way that grinningly eating ice cream in your
    underpants cannot."
    As scrupulous as I consider myself about personal hygiene, if I
    somehow get ice cream in my underpants, eating said ice cream is nowhere
    in the picture.

    • Teemu

      Does scrupulous mean what you think?

      • lewlorton

        I think it means 'attention to detail', which I am about my hygiene. What do you think it means?

  • Bob Grumman

    I think the simple platitude "Misery loves company" is a good part of why so many are drawn to sad art--it reassures us that we are all one in the misery that life can too often be for just about all of us.

  • http://tomchatfield.net/ Tom Chatfield

    This skips delightfully but rather too lightly for me over the oint that even our most intense joys - and there are many of these in most lives - contain within them the knowledge of their passing.

    This is the lightness of being, the beautiful sorrow of all things, which you describe; but I don't think it's as detachable from gladness as suggested. Sadness would simply be vacancy if there were no losing, no yearning, no love to breed mourning. "Happy" is a trite word, yes, often used in trite ways; but the variable dignity of different vocabularies isn't necessarily an insight into human nature.

    So the idea that happiness is trite skips the point, for me, of where value arises from in the first place; and the fact that it's not transience alone, but our ferociously-felt resistance to this transience, that births art and culture. It is the desire to live and feel and love, to link our selves to others and to the world, that sharpens pain into something profound, and that makes joy as urgent as any melancholy.

    Larkin captured this in his 1968 poem The Trees, which is both a celebration and act of mourning, not to mention a beautiful monument to earth's renewal and art's endurance (for a little while longer than us at least):

    The trees are coming into leaf
    Like something almost being said;
    The recent buds relax and spread,
    Their greenness is a kind of grief.

    Is it that they are born again
    And we grow old? No, they die too.
    Their yearly trick of looking new
    Is written down in rings of grain.

    Yet still the unresting castles thresh
    In fullgrown thickness every May.
    Last year is dead, they seem to say,
    Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

    • http://thewayitis.info/ Derek Roche

      Just so. You've answered the article's question, unatrabiliously too.

    • Kiula

      This has got to be one of the most riveting comments I have ever read. Thanks for sharing!

    • Shannon Kelleher

      "It's not transience alone, but our ferociously-felt resistance to this transience, that births art and culture; that sharpens pain into something profound, and makes joy as urgent as any melancholy." Beautifully said. In just that sentence I felt you eloquently captured the paradox of our existence. I have recently been experiencing the complicated relationship between joy and sadness more acutely than I ever have before, and I appreciate stumbling upon a sentence that articulates this fundamental feature of our humanity so gracefully.

  • A Amiri

    Thank you! I wish more authors like you would realize the power and influence of sadness and melancholy. I am seek of all the philosophical and psychological advices out there which put the sole purpose of life on joy and happiness.

  • cemeteryman

    Shelly says it best.

    We look before and after,
    And pine for what is not:
    Our sincerest laughter
    With some pain is fraught;
    Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

    (Ode To A Skylark)

  • Andrew McIntosh

    Perhaps a sense of dignity in the teeth of the darker emotions makes it easier to deal with them?

  • Elephant Joan

    But...but...you never try answering the question. Sure, most people would agree there's something artistic and noble about a certain kind of melancholy. You basically admit that 'handicapping' is only a small factor. So then, why? What other good explanations are out there? Anyone...?

  • Happy
  • Aliya Kadyrova

    This is a nice article and I enjoyed reading it. But I totally disagree with the author, in my opinion it is, in fact, joy that is underrated in "high culture" sort of pieces of literature and art. Sadness and depression are easy to portray because, firstly, it calls for conflict and movement, so the writer has some story to make up out of it, and secondly, everyone has experienced it in their lives. The first sentence of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" is

    “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"

    Which, I guess is kind of an easy excuse to tell really sad story after this kind of introduction. Moreover, in my opinion it is simply not true, unhappy families are usually alike, struggling with misunderstanding, disagreement, feelings of loneliness and those couples and families who are happy foun their happiness in very different ways.

    • acropunk

      'Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone.'

      Critics and scholars widely consider Hamlet as Shakespeare's best work, NOT A Midsummer Night's Dream or any of his other comedies.

      • Aliya Kadyrova

        Well, this only proves my point.
        How come that all those "lists of the greatest and most important plays" usually consist predominantly of tragedies, even though Shakespear himself wrote comedies as well?
        On the other note, I guess this dichotomy of sad/funny has something to do with class. Sadness being considered more noble thing and fun - more vernacular, common people's.

        • acropunk

          I do see your point. But I also think tragedy transcends class. The suffering in the world will always have more weight than the joy. Buddhism also talks about this.

          However melding genres can have a lot of effect. For instance, comedic relief basically didn't exist (in the West, I'm not qualified to comment n Eastern studies) until after the Greek tradition. (Hamlet certainly has comedic relief.)

          Tragicomedies and dramedies I could see one day winning an academy award (whatever that's worth...f#*k the Academy!) but never a pure comedy.

        • lennyharris

          It seems to me Tolstoy was talented enough to have real happy people, real sad people and on and on. He had the talent to have his characters have all kinds of feelings.

      • LetThereBeBlood

        And yet, personally, frost or Theroux are the true literary and poetical genius'

  • Simon Very

    Sadness is a spur to creativity. The four basic emotions and the actions they lead to:
    Fear- Run away!
    Anger- Fight!
    Joy- Do more of what you did that was joyful
    Sadness- (to be used when in situations that are not joyful, that can't be fought or run away from) Stop doing what you did that was sad. Think of something else to do that you haven't done already.

    Inventiveness, insight and such like come from feeling sad (not exclusively).

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    Conscious sadness can help you to be more creative . but ignorant suffering made your life hell.Those great writer created unique artistic work they suffered consciously..Dostoevsky wrote I am afraid very much living life will I avoid the responsibility of my suffering Those who avoiding the responsibility of their suffering them never become good artist.Nietzsche wrote "Accept your fate not only accept it but love it"those who know movement of their unconscious mind they are always happy

  • Meeeee

    Interesting article but made me think that even emotions can become commodities, fashion and badges of "cool". True sadness is heartrending pain so great that no one wants to be in its grip if it could be otherwise. Elegant melancholia, ".....elegant sadness is more like a peacock's tail..." sounds like all about being cool. "All men of genius are melancholy.." I can just hear the hipsters and hipster artists bemoaning whatever and wringing their hands about such and such.. and you just know they are all misunderstood. Save for those individuals with true emotional conditions or who have been victims of extreme circumstances I have a sneaking suspicion that more often than not melancholia is a condition predominantly of the young on a journey into their 30s and 40s. A sort of emotional cigarette for looking cool .

    • DocHope

      Meeeee, I also enjoyed and understood the sentiments of the author. But, I completely agree with you. Having been that melancholy teen/youth/young woman I can say without a doubt that (for me) it takes a lot more maturity, strength, practice and selflessness to seek and share joy and beauty, than to default to that place of personal on universal sadness.
      As far as "happiness" goes, it is a transitory emotion, like all others. But at 42, I experience it much more often than I did at 22.
      Most of us do enjoy artistic depictions of misery--because they make us feel better by comparison, because they make us feel less alone, because there is a universal truth there which resonates with us, and because the stylized sufferer is a romantic figure.
      At some point, however, most people are drawn to those of us who choose to accept (not deny) the inevitable pain of life and get on with it, finding reasons to smile, to reach out to others, to create and live and laugh about it all. You can sense when someone is able to empathize with the darkness and not succumb to it. Who is not moved by someone who can passionately enjoy, or honestly love with the full knowledge that the moment will pass, and the beloved may betray. I believe that kind of strength and joy holds the greatest attraction.
      I don't know who really said it, but I love it nonetheless: "Pain is inevitable, suffering is what we do with it".

  • David

    This is beautiful

  • sidthecat

    My experience of sadness, depression and the deaths of loved ones has suggested to me that happiness isn't a received state; it is the result of hard work. Awful things happen to everyone, but how we react to them is an act of will.

  • http://shinbone.org/ b allen

    Sure, there is a bittersweet lift to melancholy. I get it. I spent most of my late teens and early 20's riding that wave. But what I came to is that there is work to be done. I suspect that the mopey self-indulgence of clever young men/women is often a reaction to the disconnect between ideology and real life, which leads to an elegant, even superior dissatisfaction with things as they are. Plato's great mischief was teaching people that the "realm" of perfect forms was more real than the messy, heuristically understood multivariate shit-fight that is the real world. And I am sorry if this mess is too, too squalid for their refined and beautiful tastes, but it's time to get to work, not to make the world into some ideal, but to alleviate the worst of the suffering that the world is soaked in. Revelling in the refined beauty of sorrow for transient joys can take a backburner to dealing with illiteracy and environmental degradation, for me and mine. I admire people who smile through the pain and get on with it far more than wounded ideologues, even those who use language well.