Bittersweet by Susan Cain review – a cutesy manifesto for the happy-sad | Books about health, mind and body
NOTwell, on a scale of 0 to 10: do you seek beauty on a daily basis? Do you know what CS Lewis meant when he described joy as “a wonderful, sharp stab of longing”? Do you react intensely to music, art or nature? Are you moved by old photographs? Do you experience happiness and sadness simultaneously?
If your answer is an emphatic yes to these and similar questions in Susan Cain’s bittersweet quiz (I shockingly stopped at the one about being seen as an “old soul”), then you will score high and qualify as “a true connoisseur of where light and dark meet”. You are not sanguine (tough, forward-looking, ambitious, battle-ready, tough), but bittersweet – and to be bittersweet means to be sensitive, creative and witty, with a “tendency to states of nostalgia , emotion and grief; a keen awareness of the passage of time; and a curiously piercing joy in the beauty of the world”. Bittersweet, writes Susan Cain with startling sincerity, signifies the transformation of pain into “creativity, transcendence and love “.
In Silent, Cain argued that we underestimate introverted, thoughtful, dreamy introverts in favor of the loud extrovert, who is gregarious, confident, bold, thick-skinned and successful. bittersweet – a benevolent, optimistic and unflinchingly serious book, not a shred of humor in sight – is actually a variation on the same theme and uses the same dubious binary model. While sanguines are the merry badass in charge of the world, bittersweet is an overlooked but truly beautiful quality. It’s the instinct for compassion, it’s the sadness, it’s the modesty, it’s the hidden pain and calm and the hovering allure of the happy-sad, the oh-so-painful sense of time that pass. It’s Leonard Cohen (Cain is ardent for Cohen, his troubadour of pessimism, which made me doubt my own love for him), Aristotle, Sufism, Pippi Longstocking, Baudelaire, Nina Simone, the Koran and the Bible , Plato, Rumi, meditations, Maya Angelou…
To like Calm, bittersweet is an easy-on-the-ego genre hybrid. Cain turns to other people’s stories as well as his own (his best and simplest writing is reserved for his own losses). She weaves these narratives with research, philosophy, psychology, art and religion. Her statements about literature often made me blink (how does she know Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet out of desire?). Goblets of wisdom are extracted from their necessary context and deployed to teach a crucial lesson: beware of the bittersweet; feel the desire within you. Because it truly is a motivational book, sometimes like an expanded Ted Talk, each chapter reaching a climax of kindness and connectedness with others, and often like a how-to manual designed to help the reader get closer to their core vulnerable: Ask yourself what you dream of, try this guided online version of loving kindness meditation and here are seven ways to cope with loss… There’s something for everyone in this pick’n’mix assemblage of sadness and well-being.
Cain wants a kinder, deeper, more connected and creative world. She obviously invested herself body and soul in writing a book that will bring us together. But bittersweet – most of which I cannot disagree – did not edify me. It depressed me and also made me grumpy. His unwavering seriousness and gentle wit flatten the field; everything looks like topsoil and nothing can grow deep roots. With her belief in the fundamental bittersweetness of us all, Cain seeks to erase the differences between political groups, rich and poor (I don’t understand why she turned to colleagues at Princeton, leaders of the industry or the House of Beautiful Affairs for his examples or participated in motivational workshops in Silicon Valley where privileged people could discover their secret wounds), between cultures and classes and religions.
She also blithely fails to distinguish between the profound and the cutesy or the quack: Romeo and Juliet sits side by side with Madison County Bridges, Freud with pop psychology. There are quotes from Saint Augustine or Charles Darwin and also platitudes such as “desire is the gateway to belonging” or “we all seek heaven”. I’m all for the bittersweet – I also love rainy days and sad songs and Leonard Cohen songs on my bike – but after reading this book, my desire was for the earth: for the salt of irony, for specificity, anger, doubt and laughter.