Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
It was in Paris in October, 1985, that Styron first realized his continuing struggle to regain his mental equilibrium might lead to his death. He had been fighting against a growing loss of self-esteem for some months over the previous summer, and during that October trip to receive the Prix Mondial Cino del Duca, which should have been a joyful occasion, his feelings of worthlessness deepened. He had at first ascribed his anxiety and restlessness to alcohol withdrawal, for he had abruptly given up whiskey and all other intoxicants the previous June. As his moods worsened, he started to read as much as he could on the disease of depression, about which little was known at that time. When his distress intensified before he had left for the Paris trip with his wife, Rose, he had made an appointment to see a psychiatrist as soon as he returned to his home in Connecticut.
As he meditates on his own wretched mental state, Styron is reminded of the death of the existentialist writer Albert Camus and the prominence of suicide and despondency in his work. This segues into a long discussion of the suicides of the activist Abbie Hoffman and writer Primo Levi and the suspected suicide of poet Randall Jarrell. Although depression afflicts an eclectic group and anyone might be a potential victim, there is some evidence to suggest that artistic types, especially poets, are unusually prone to the disease.
After returning home from Paris, Styron met with his...
(The entire section is 492 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Toward the end of 1985, Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Styron slowly fell into a deep state of depression. He first made his condition public in 1988, when he published an editorial in The New York Times on the suicide of Auschwitz survivor and noted author Primo Levi. In the editorial, Styron makes the case that Levi’s death does not have moral implications and that depression can lead inexorably to suicide.
Styron also further argues that many people do survive depression, even its most devastating forms. Time, he claims, is the key. After publishing several articles in Vanity Fair in 1989 on his bout with depression, Styron completed his writings on depression with a longer personal narrative, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. A concise, harrowing recounting of his ordeal, Darkness Visible employs an artist’s dexterity with language to attempt to describe, understand, and delineate the many facets of depression.
Depression affects people across boundaries of sex, race, age, and class. It has different manifestations and different origins—perhaps as many as it has sufferers. Understanding that, Styron avoids making grand claims and generalizations about the illness. Instead, he tells his story, and the stories of a few famous writers—Albert Camus, Randall Jarrell, Art Buchwald, and others—trying to illustrate by example the experience of the disease.
(The entire section is 441 words.)
In the first chapter of Darkness Visible, Styron locates his narrative in place and time, writing that he first became fully aware of his illness in October 1985 while in Paris to receive the Prix Mondial Cino del Duca, an award given each year to a writer or scientist whose work reflects the values of humanism. Styron employs a flashback to discuss the eeriness of returning to the city thirty-three years after first visiting it in 1952. By examining his own strange behavior in Paris, Styron illustrates the chaos into which the human mind sinks during an episode of deep depression. He discusses how enigmatic the disease is and how difficult it is to come up with an adequate definition of depression.
In this chapter Styron reminisces about Albert Camus and Romain Gary. Camus was a well-known French writer and existentialist whose philosophy influenced Styron’s novels. Existentialism, a philosophical position emphasizing humanity’s aloneness in a godless world, was in large part popularized by Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, another midcentury French writer. Camus died in an automobile accident in 1960, before Styron had the opportunity to meet him. Gary was a writer and a friend of Styron’s, who committed suicide in 1980. Styron speculates on the relationship between suicide and depression, making connections between these two writers and his own situation.
(The entire section is 835 words.)