Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness Essays and Criticism
by William Styron

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Themes of Existentialism in Darkness Visible

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The contradictions inherent in understanding the phenomenon of human depression parallel the contradictions inherent in understanding human existence itself. It is no surprise that Styron claims that Albert Camus, more than any other writer, has influenced his writing and his life. Camus’ existentialism is rooted in the idea of the absurdity of human existence and the inscrutability of the world in which humans live. Comparing existentialist themes to themes of depression will show that the latter is an appropriate, if not necessary, condition for the former. After all, it is seldom that one hears about a happy existentialist.

The cornerstone of existentialist thought is that existence precedes essence. This position emphasizes human beings’ material nature, their place apart from any system of predetermined behavior or nature. Human beings make choices, and their lives are the result of those choices. This idea is particularly evident in Camus’ novel The Stranger, which tells the story of a man who commits murder for reasons he cannot fathom but who ultimately takes responsibility for the act. Styron’s own refusal to see his depression as the result of any one cause and his admission that he himself might have brought on his condition (through his years of alcohol abuse) show his awareness that his own choices helped bring about the illness.

But if systems of thought, morality, and meaning are themselves bankrupt, to what does the individual anchor himself? For existentialists such as Camus, what remains is the void, an absence of meaning and meaning-making structures. Emptiness itself forms the background against which life is lived. Styron’s own life in the wake of his depression mirrors this emptiness. It’s as if the onslaught of full-blown depression enables him to realize the emptiness of his existence. Again and again in Darkness Visible he writes of the losses in his life during his depression, his inability to see beauty in the world, to make love to his wife, to write, even to hold a conversation. All of these things become impossible because of his depression. What remains is the feeling of loss itself, the emptiness at the root of his despair. Often accompanying this feeling of loss, for existentialists, is the feeling of alienation from one’s own self. Karl Marx has described alienation as resulting from contradictions inherent in society. Human beings’ desires are created by societal structures, which themselves are not capable of fulfilling those desires. Styron describes his own alienation from himself when he says that he often felt haunted, as if a ‘‘wraithlike observer . . . not sharing the dementia of his double, is able to watch with dispassionate curiosity as his companion struggles against the oncoming disaster, or decides to embrace it.’’ Styron’s relentless selfconscious only adds to his pain, as he watches himself sink further and further into the bleakness, without the ability to halt it.

Accompanying Styron’s feeling of loss and alienation are anxiety and dread, the overriding emotions that color existentialist thought. In existentialism, anxiety and dread undergird life itself. Human beings are anxious because they’re aware that life has no meaning, that nothingness, nonbeing, is the ultimate reality. Systems of thought that posit happiness or salvation as the goal of human activity are naive because they give people false hope. Styron describes his own anxiety as a ‘‘brainstorm,’’ saying that he could rarely sleep and that he was frequently overcome with a ‘‘positive and active anguish.’’ Such anxiety is common in those diagnosed with depression, but it is almost always attributed to a neuro-chemical imbalance and treated with drugs. For ‘‘professionals,’’ who themselves are a part of the system that attempts to give meaning to the lives of others, to admit that anxiety is a universal human condition is to admit defeat. (It would also put them out of...

(The entire section is 8,237 words.)