Susan Cain is the American author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, which sold over 4 million copies and was translated into more than 40 languages. Previously an ambitious lawyer, Cain withdrew into more reflective pursuits, and following the runaway success of Quiet, has produced Bittersweet, which resists classification, hovering like a butterfly between poetic mysticism and social psychology, as it dips into philosophy and Buddhism in search of the correlation between beauty and sadness.
And then, by extension, grounding the author's thesis that sadness and loss can be usefully transmuted into creativity and love - rather like a bittersweet survival kit, I guess.
Hippocrates, the famed Greek physician, believed the human body contained four humours (or fluids) broadly corresponding to different temperament: melancholic (sad), sanguine (happy), choleric (aggressive), and phlegmatic (calm). The ideal person was thought to enjoy a harmonious balance of all four, but many of us tend to stray off in one direction or another.
Cain's introduction explains that this book is about the melancholic direction, which she calls the "bittersweet: a tendency to states of longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world".
The introduction ends with a "bittersweet quiz", designed to reveal how far we may have strayed in the melancholic direction, which sounds rather twee, despite having been developed by research and cognitive scientists. I scored highly on the bittersweet scale, which was no surprise since I've always been inclined towards melancholia, often "elevated" by "sad music", and "moved by old photographs" and "rainy days".
Cain loves the "yearning" quality of Leonard Cohen's songs, particularly Hallelujah, and briefly recalls his time on the Greek Island of Hydra, which happened to coincide with the Johnston/Clift escapist myth. She includes a Cohen quote concerning Hydra that reflects the curiously Sufi-like sense of something immeasurably large being constrained by a few simple words: "When you have lived on Hydra, you can't live anywhere else, including Hydra". Buddhism is based on longing, explored by the 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi, who becomes another source of inspiration for Cain.
There are some beautifully crafted - and well-researched - passages on creativity, sorrow and longing, mortality and grief, and personal redemption, including her own. Cain's grandparents were holocaust survivors, and her mother was loving but over-protective, leaving a complex resentment that took years to expiate. This is an intriguing book that takes a profoundly compassionate tilt at connections within the human condition.
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