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‘Bittersweet’ Review: A Moving But Incomplete Analysis of Sorrow

3 Stars

Cover of Susan Cain's "Bittersweet."
Cover of Susan Cain's "Bittersweet." By Courtesy of Penguin Random House
By Kelsey S. Mann, Contributing Writer



Susan Cain entered the literary world with strength and momentum when she published her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” in 2012. She shattered myths about what it means to be introverted and urged her readers to recognize that communities suffer when introverts are cast aside. Her work ignited a global conversation on communication, leadership, and how to value the quiet among us.

In her latest release, “Bittersweet,” Cain holds tight to that ambition and directly challenges a more deeply seated and culturally reinforced argument: Painful emotions are useless, shameful, and should be suppressed. Cain asserts that sorrow, longing, and grief allow for joy, love, compassion, and spiritual connection to be all the more meaningful. While this argument is moving, this book misses some crucial components of the conversation, diluting her claims in the process.

Cain uses her introduction as a much needed space to explain: What is bittersweetness? Cain defines it as “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.” Employing a generous mix of case studies, personal anecdotes, and spiritual movements, she goes on to present chapters filled with examples of beauty spawned from embracing melancholy, and offers advice for how to move through loss, allow pain to inform leadership, and reckon with the inevitability of death.

This hodge-podge, though, of analytical paths keeps the book from being especially focused. Jumping from religious theory to social research to personal narrative and back again makes the book’s direction feel cyclical rather than forward-facing. The flowery, mystical language of religious and spiritual dogma stands in sharp contrast against the practical descriptions of leadership and communication development in the workplace, and it makes both of them harder to take seriously. All the thought avenues Cain explores are worth discussion, but in trying to do it at once, she risks drowning the most important ideas — and the reader — in a sea of theory, research, and memoir.

The manner in which Cain goes about presenting this mass of material to her reader, though, is commendable. The reading experience is both painful and cathartic as Cain, with a gentle hand, leads her readers down the intimidating path of more deeply considering their own emotional tendencies and well-being. The language is rarely convoluted or condescending, and Cain uses largely accessible research to support her ideas. She writes of well-known musicians, poets, and philosophers who embraced bittersweetness in their work and were all the better off for it. This book does a fabulous job of helping even the most unemotional reader connect the ideas of melancholy to the context of their own life. And ultimately, in facilitating this connection, it is the transformation from “pain into creativity, transcendence, and love” that Cain wants her readers to embrace.

The pain-to-creativity pipeline is well-documented; negative emotions often inspire great art. But Cain fails to acknowledge that sometimes pain, or more specifically, trauma are imposed upon people in sustained and unbearable ways. The creativity and transcendence described in this book are frequently occurring after distance has been created between the subject and the traumatic experiences. For many, though, there are social, economic, and racial factors that create a nearly constant state of traumatization. Bittersweetness is about the coexistence of light and dark and the ways in which this duality can be used to form more meaningful connections with other humans. But what happens when some humans force unnatural, man-made iterations of darkness into the lives of others?

The book never meaningfully addresses this conflict. Given its engagement with various realms of life and academia, this missing piece leaves a gaping hole: The practical, social, and historical implications of what it means to be sad.

Ultimately, “Bittersweet” achieves Cain’s goal: The reading experience forces her audience to consider that perhaps sorrow does serve a purpose, and that we should allow one another to welcome our negative emotions without judgment. The book is well-researched, well-written, and a necessary first step into an important conversation, but it is incomplete. It fails to acknowledge the way that social and economic forces often keep people in situations that make transforming past pain into creativity especially difficult. Sorrow cannot build bridges when it is intentionally and systematically perpetuated as a tool for subjugation and oppression.

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