Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

by William Styron

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Themes of Existentialism in Darkness Visible

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1335

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...

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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 a job.)

For existentialists, what can be more empty than death itself, the final nothingness that hovers over all life? Death, the absence of consciousness and continuity of the self is something that most human beings do not think about often. Yet existentialism, especially that strain put forth by German thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietszche, holds that it is only when contemplating one’s own death that one can achieve authentic existence. However, taking one’s own life, the ultimate existential act, is taboo for most and, in many societies, a crime. The very absurdity of that law underscores the (unspoken) anxiety that society has about life’s meaning(lessness). Styron spends a great many words reflecting on suicide, particularly the suicide of others, suggesting that the deaths of many writers and artists, such as Virginia Woolf, Primo Levi, Romain Gary, and Abbie Hoffman, among others, might have been prevented if only these people had been aware of and sought help for their depression. But this very attitude by Styron contradicts another strain in his writing, which sympathizes with the choice that those very people made in taking their lives. In discussing Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which asks whether life is worth living, Styron himself asks whether Camus’ statement about suicide, ‘‘and his general preoccupation with the subject, might have sprung at least as strongly from some persistent disturbance of mood as from his concerns with ethics and epistemology.’’ Styron himself contemplated suicide and indeed went so far as to destroy his diary, speak with his lawyer, and begin to compose a farewell letter when, at the last minute, he chose to check himself into a hospital.

Styron’s inability to name his state of mind, his constant refrain that depression is ‘‘indescribable’’ and ‘‘beyond words,’’ mirrors the ways in which existential philosophers have approached the idea of existence. Just as language cannot adequately represent depression, it also cannot represent the experience of existence itself. However, the difference between Styron’s story of illness and recovery and the human condition as seen from an existential point of view is that he has found the language to represent depression. It is a language rooted in simple faith that there is meaning in the world. The meaning-producing system from which he finds the language to describe his experience is the discourse of art and artists. Just as Styron draws on a legion of artists and writers to illustrate the links among creativity, depression, and self-destruction, so too does he draw on the same figures to illustrate the redemption that comes from enduring suffering. These are Styron’s words for those who have been healed of depression by time: ‘‘For those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet, trudging upward and upward out of hell’s black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as ‘the shining world.’’’ Such a description, drawn from Dante, does not attempt to explain the nature of the illness or even to offer strategies for surviving it. Indeed, nowhere in his narrative does Styron provide a real reason to refute existentialism’s claim that the universe is inherently meaningless and that life is not worth living. His only solace for those suffering from depression is that ‘‘depression is not the soul’s annihilation . . . it is conquerable.’’ The world that the sufferer returns to may not be more meaningful, or more rational, but it is, for Styron, more tolerable. Faced with a world in which meaning is not evident and in which communication often seems impossible, existentialists are often consumed with trying to find reasons to live, to justify not taking one’s own life. For Styron, who endured an illness that surely magnified the absurdity of the human condition many times over, these reasons, like depression and existence itself, are beyond language.

Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on Darkness Visible, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Semansky is an instructor of English literature and composition at Chemeketa Community College. His fiction, poetry, and essays appear regularly in literary magazines and journals.

Contributions to the Understanding of Depression in Darkness Visible

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2342

In 1985, author William Styron suffered a bout of depression so severe that after months of misery, barely able to sleep, engulfed by a ‘‘gray drizzle of horror,’’ convinced there was ‘‘no escape’’ from his devastating situation, he stood on the brink of taking his own life. Although Styron managed to withdraw from the abyss and commit himself to a psychiatric ward where he regained his mental health, questions remained for him. What had caused the depression? How was he able to recover from it? How does society, including the medical community, react to its depressed members? Styron explores these issues through the deeply personal chronicle of his experience, Darkness Visible.

With remarkable candor, Styron shows that the depressed person lacks any belief that circumstances will get better. His close brush with suicide came when he had ‘‘reached the phase of the disorder where all sense of hope had vanished, along with the idea of a futurity.’’ By December 1985, Styron was certain that ‘‘no remedy will come—not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute.’’ Any ‘‘mild relief’’ he might feel was ‘‘only temporary,’’ leading him to the state of hopelessness that ‘‘crushes the soul.’’ However, on the eve that Styron prepared for his suicide, he heard a snippet of Brahms, which ‘‘pierced my heart like a dagger.’’ Although he had been ‘‘numbly unresponsive for months’’ to any form of pleasure, Styron reacted unexpectedly to the music as it made him recall ‘‘all the joys the house had known’’—the children, the love, the hard work. ‘‘All this I realized was more than I could ever abandon,’’ Styron remarked. ‘‘And just as powerfully I realized I could not commit this desecration on myself.’’

After battling back to health, Styron openly discussed his illness. In Darkness Visible, he shares a stark and truthful account of the downward journey from which many other gifted but troubled authors have been unable to emerge. Perhaps his main accomplishment is to help people who have not suffered from depression get some inkling about how the debilitating disease feels to its victims. Drawing on his own experiences, Styron provides several compelling and convincing examples of the healthy person’s inability to comprehend depression. A devotee of the French novelist and philosopher Albert Camus, Styron strongly responded to ‘‘the cosmic loneliness’’ of the hero of Camus’ The Stranger; when he read Camus’ The Fall, however, he only ‘‘admired it with reservation’’ because ‘‘the guilt and self-condemnation of the lawyer-narrator, gloomily spinning out his monologue in an Amsterdam bar, seemed a touch clamorous and excessive.’’ Having read the book before his own illness, Styron did not recognize that Camus had drawn an accurate if distressing portrayal of a man suffering from clinical depression. ‘‘Such was my innocence of the very existence of the disease,’’ the postsickness Styron acknowledges.

Even coming face-to-face with severe depression did not bring about any greater comprehension in Styron. He recalls a visit with a close friend, the novelist Romain Gary, and Gary’s ex-wife, actress Jean Seberg, which took place only a few years before his own lapse into depression. Styron was ‘‘shocked and saddened’’ to see Seberg who ‘‘moved like a sleepwalker, said little, and had the blank gaze of someone tranquilized (or drugged, or both).’’ Despite this grim picture and despite Gary’s mention of ‘‘something about antidepressant medications,’’ Styron failed to realize the seriousness of the situation. ‘‘This memory of my relative indifference is important,’’ he writes, ‘‘because such indifference demonstrates powerfully the outsider’s inability to grasp the essence of the illness.’’ Seberg committed suicide the following year, and when Styron subsequently visited with Gary in Paris, he noticed that his friend manifested physical symptoms of a malady—trembling hands and a voice that sounded prematurely aged. The culprit was revealed when Gary bluntly stated that ‘‘his loss of Jean had so deepened his depression that from time to time he had been rendered nearly helpless.’’ Recalls Styron of the encounter and his reaction, ‘‘But even then I was unable to comprehend the nature of his anguish.’’ Shortly thereafter, Gary shot himself through the head. The implications of Gary’s suicide still did not truly reach Styron; not until he neared helplessness himself, when ‘‘the pain descended,’’ did Styron finally begin to grasp what Gary and Seberg had experienced—the certainty that ‘‘on some not-too-distant tomorrow—I would be forced to judge that life was not worth living.’’

Styron occupies a unique perspective; he has seen close friends undergo the torture of severe depression and has undergone it himself—and lived to tell. Because of these credentials, Styron can be trusted when he explains that the illness of depression is ‘‘a sensation close to . . . actual pain.’’ The adjectives he continuously comes back to in repeated attempts to explain depression to healthy people are such words or phrases as ‘‘incomprehensible,’’ ‘‘beyond description,’’ and ‘‘unimaginable.’’ Healthy people, he writes, have a ‘‘basic inability . . . to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience.’’

As Styron’s own case of depression further illustrates, it takes time even for the sufferer himself to develop self-awareness of the disease’s manifestation. Styron’s onset of depression was heralded only by a ‘‘subtle’’ change. His ‘‘surroundings took on a different tone at certain times,’’ and he experienced ‘‘a moment during my working hours in the late afternoon when a kind of panic and anxiety overtook me, just for a few minutes.’’ Though in hindsight he believes that ‘‘it should have been plain to me that I was already in the grip of the beginning of a mood disorder,’’ at the time, he only felt ‘‘unfocused stirrings.’’ Not until October 1985, while he was in Paris to accept an illustrious literary prize—one ‘‘which should have sparklingly restored my ego’’—did Styron finally realize the seriousness of his situation.

The general lack of understanding of depression on the part of laypeople often results in others’ refusal to accept the reality of depression-induced suicide. People close to a suicide victim who deny the truth about this death make the sufferer ‘‘unjustly . . . appear a wrongdoer.’’ Suicide victims are viewed as acting out of cowardice, personal weakness, or ‘‘moral feebleness’’; in truth, the individual most likely was ‘‘afflicted with a depression that was so devastating that he could no longer endure the pain of it.’’ When the well-known 1960s radical Abbie Hoffman died from a major overdose of sedatives, Hoffman’s brother still appeared on television ‘‘to deflect the idea of suicide, insisting that Abbie, after all, had always been careless with pills.’’ Italian writer Primo Levi poses another striking example of a suicide casualty that others did not want to accept. After living through, and writing about, the horrors of the death camp at Auschwitz, years later the sixty-seven-year-old Levi threw himself down a flight of stairs. Styron notes that many participants at a conference on Levi ‘‘seemed mystified and disappointed’’ by the author’s actions:

It was as if this man whom they had all so greatly admired, and who had endured so much at the hands of the Nazis—had by his suicide demonstrated a frailty, a crumbling of character they were loath to accept. In the face of a terrible absolute—selfdestruction— their reaction was helplessness and . . . a touch of shame.

Styron strongly disagreed; it was not weakness that killed Levi but an ‘‘anguish [that] can no longer be borne.’’

‘‘[T]he disease of depression remains a great mystery,’’ writes Styron. Significantly, it remains this way to many people, including those who suffer from it, those who witness it, and those who attempt to cure it. For instance, until becoming ill, Styron was unaware that ‘‘in its major stages [depression] possesses no quickly available remedy.’’ He originally thought that his new doctor ‘‘would whisk my malaise away with his miraculous medications.’’ Such naivete later shocked Styron: ‘‘I . . . am hardly able to believe that I possessed such ingenuous hope, or that I could have been so unaware of the trouble and peril that lay ahead.’’

Unfortunately, Styron’s psychiatrist, whom he calls Doctor Gold, turns out to be little more than a quack. The only help he offered Styron, aside from ‘‘ineffective’’ platitudes, was an antidepressant that made Styron ‘‘edgy’’ and ‘‘disagreeably hyperactive.’’ When informed of these and other medical problems, Doctor Gold then prescribed Styron a new medication, one that did not actually take effect for several more weeks. He also prescribed a dosage that was three times the normal amount and particularly dangerous to someone Styron’s age. (Styron later came to believe that this medication, taken in such large dosages, led him to become suicidal.) Perhaps even more shocking, when Styron broached the suggestion of checking into a hospital, Doctor Gold discouraged him from doing so, merely ‘‘owing to the stigma I might suffer.’’ With this action, Doctor Gold obliquely but firmly upholds the erroneous idea that the depressed person is to blame for his problems. In the end, Styron had to rely on some hidden quality within himself to draw back from suicide. Like the ‘‘austere message’’ that Camus held out in The Myth of Sisyphus, Styron knew that ‘‘in the absence of hope we must still struggle to survive, and so we do—by the skin of our teeth.’’

After his recovery, in an effort to better understand depression, Styron hypothesizes as to the incipient cause of his condition. Though he categorizes his depression as ‘‘atypical,’’ Styron nonetheless attributes it to standard causes, ones that are generally supported by research and science—primarily a genetic predisposition and an unresolved childhood trauma:

The morbid condition proceeded, I have come to believe, from my beginning years—from my father, who battled the gorgon for much of his lifetime, and had been hospitalized in my boyhood after a despondent spiraling downward that in retrospect I saw greatly resembled mine. . . . Bu t I’m persuaded that an even more significant factor was the death of my mother when I was thirteen; this disorder and early sorrow . . . appears repeatedly in the literature on depression as a trauma sometimes likely to create nearly irreparable emotional havoc.

‘‘Loss,’’ Styron writes, ‘‘in all of its manifestations is the touchstone of depression—in the progress of the disease and, most likely, in its origin.’’

Despite the many positive attributes of Darkness Visible, some readers will take issue with certain of Styron’s assertions, namely his depiction of psychiatrists, therapists, and therapy; Styron seems to attack the state and practice of psychiatry in the United States. Though Doctor Gold certainly acts both immorally and hazardously, many readers will have a hard time accepting that he is representative of the American psychiatrist; countless people who have suffered from depression—both in its major and minor forms—have been greatly helped through psychiatric therapy as well as through medication. Though Styron boldly states that ‘‘many psychiatrists . . . do not seem to be able to comprehend the nature and depth of the anguish their patients are undergoing,’’ he provides no proof aside from his own experiences—he neither cites other people who have suffered from depression nor these maligned psychiatrists themselves. A hospital psychiatrist with whom Styron has some sessions also comes under attack. Styron finds this doctor, who ran group therapy, to be ‘‘an odiously smug young shrink [emphasis mine].’’ Both ‘‘condescending and bullying,’’ he seems to draw perverse personal satisfaction from making his patients cry. Further, the hospital’s art therapist is described as ‘‘a delirious young woman,’’ one who was ‘‘plainly trained at a school offering courses in Teaching Art to the Mentally Ill.’’ Only in a brief, parenthetical aside does Styron acknowledge that he found most of the hospital’s psychiatric staff ‘‘exemplary in their tact and compassion.’’

Styron’s evocation of therapy is similarly dismissive. ‘‘Group Therapy, I am told, has some value,’’ he writes; ‘‘I would never want to derogate any concept shown to be effective for certain individuals.’’ However, he goes on to offer his own impression of it: ‘‘Group Therapy did nothing for me except make me seethe . . . Time hangs heavy in the hospital, and the best I can say for Group Therapy is that it was a way to occupy the hours.’’ Styron also was made to attend classes in art therapy, which he characterized as ‘‘organized infantilism.’’ Feeling ‘‘humiliated rage’’ at having to participate in this activity, Styron deliberately and successfully mimicked the ‘‘intermediate stages of recuperation’’ through his artwork, culminating in his creation of ‘‘a rosy and cherubic head with a ‘Have-a-Nice-Day’ smile.’’ His gulled therapist was ‘‘overjoyed’’ at the supposed ‘‘example of the triumph over disease by Art Therapy.’’

Styron credits the ‘‘real healers’’ of his illness as ‘‘seclusion and time.’’ If the depressed person can ‘‘survive the storm itself,’’ as Styron did, ‘‘its fury almost always fades and then disappears. . . . Mysterious in its coming, mysterious in its going, the affliction runs its course, and one finds peace.’’ The hospital merely served to facilitate this process, because in the institution ‘‘one’s only duty is to try and get well.’’ Styron seems to claim that his recovery stemmed completely from his own efforts and his ability to hold on to life in the face of despair.

Still, Styron’s final chapter is a testament to the sense of hope that he and other sufferers may yet find within themselves. Like Styron, many of those afflicted with this grave disease have recovered, conquering this despondency of the soul. Further, Styron believes that many of these people have also been ‘‘restored to the capacity for serenity and joy.’’ He ends his essay with a quote from Dante’s Inferno: ‘‘And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.’’ Writes John Bemrose in Maclean’s, ‘‘That note of hope is Darkness Visible’s final, moving gift.’’

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Darkness Visible, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

A Journey Through Insanity

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Traffic snarls as motorists crane their necks toward an automobile accident, movies continually surpass each other in the amount and nature of graphic violence they depict, and real-life crime sells well in books and on television. Why is that so? Psychologists do not agree on the motivation behind such macabre interest. Many individuals cannot explain themselves the force that makes them look at things they would rather not see. But the answer as to why they look is not preeminent. What is important is that they do look. Reading William Styron’s slim volume Darkness Visible is the literary equivalent of witnessing an indescribable act of violence. Whether readers devour it in amazement because they find within it the gruesomely accurate record of their own sufferings, or they endure it in thankful relief that their own situation does not approach the depth of despair voiced within it, they read it. When they have finished, they have in their minds a surprisingly accurate presentation of one man’s descent into the abyss of a depressive disorder.

The book is not remarkable in that Styron found a way to describe the mental illness that is depression. He admits early on that there are no words for what he endured. His choice of title alone should be enough to convince potential readers that he does not have the words to describe his mental demise. The oxymoron ‘‘visible darkness’’ describes nothing at all. Styron reiterates in the final pages of this book that ‘‘since antiquity . . . chroniclers of the human spirit have been wrestling with a vocabulary that might give proper expression to the desolation of melancholia.’’ He acknowledges that to those who live with it, ‘‘the horror of depression is so overwhelming as to be quite beyond expression, hence the frustrated sense of inadequacy found in the work of even the greatest artists.’’ Though he attempts to describe certain symptoms of his disease, his description of the symptoms should not be equated with a description of the disease any more than a description of fever and aching joints should be equated with the description of a particular malady. The way this book succeeds in sharing an intimate experience with depression is not through a description of depression; it is through its form. The book’s stark prose, fixation on death, and egocentric viewpoint that underscores the isolation of depression combine to create a hellish metaphor—a simulation rather than a snapshot.

The book is written in a style that mimics the starkness of being trapped in a depressed state. Stark in one sense can mean lifeless (as in lacking animation or vividness), and the prose in this work is definitely lifeless in that sense. The book begins with a scene remembered from a dark, rainy October evening. Styron was in France to receive a prestigious award and under normal circumstances would have relished the award, the vacation, and the company of his wife in one of the world’s most romanticized cities, Paris. But the beauty, both real and mythical, of Paris was lost on Styron. He describes the ‘‘damp, plain’’ hotel where he first stayed as a young man visiting Paris thirty-five years earlier and remembers its ‘‘drab bedroom’’ and ‘‘ill-lit hallway.’’ As the book progresses, Styron stays in Paris and dines at a pair of exceptional restaurants. Yet in keeping with the stark nature of his depression, he describes neither ambiance nor cuisine. There is no color and no flavor in this writing.

The starkness of the book’s tone is further developed in Styron’s conscious or subconscious use of particular words. In the first sentence of the book he uses the word ‘‘fatal’’ in the sense of meaning ‘‘deadly.’’ He admits that his depression gradually reached a point at which he realized the outcome might be deadly. Almost immediately, he uses the word again, this time to describe a feeling of coming full circle, of literally ending his experience of Paris where he had begun it, at the Washington Hotel. His meaning of the word in context is quite clear; he means ‘‘fatally’’ as in ‘‘fatefully’’ or ‘‘a fulfilling of fate.’’ Yet he ends the paragraph with the statement that he feels he will never see Paris again, that when he leaves it will be ‘‘a matter of forever.’’ In other words, he has modulated into the initially used meaning of fatal as in ‘‘deadly.’’

Styron’s use of the various meanings of the word fatal supports the statement that the book’s language and thus its tone is stark, but it also prepares the reader for another characteristic of this book: It dwells largely on death. Primarily, Styron dwells on suicide in the book. From his first pages there can be no doubt that Styron believes his mental state to be grave. He is haunted by the continual specter of death: ‘‘thoughts of death had long been common during my siege, blowing through my mind like icy gusts of wind.’’ Very soon the rather general preoccupation with death becomes a preoccupation with suicide. He wrote that, at one point, ‘‘many of the artifacts of my house had become potential devices for my own destruction.’’ Included in his list are ‘‘the attic rafters (and an outside maple or two) a means to hang myself, the garage a place to inhale carbon monoxide, the bathtub a vessel to receive the flow from my opened arteries. The kitchen knives in their drawers had but one purpose for me.’’ Styron did seem to make, as far as this book is concerned, a rare attempt at humor by adding, almost in the way a comedian would, an aside about ‘‘an outside maple or two.’’ However, this attempt serves only to highlight the total absence of any humorous or light-hearted elements in the rest of the book.

In addition to being overwhelmed by Styron’s pervasive thoughts of death, readers are subjected to a ponderously long list of Who’s Who among suicides. Additionally, numerous suicides are chronicled in detail. In those cases readers learn about possible motivating factors leading to the suicide, the observable signs of the deceased’s irreversible slide into depression, and even the means by which the suicide was carried out. The effect is to leave the reader, once he or she has finished the book, crushed under the weight of the Grim Reaper as surely as if the black-cloaked figure was sitting upon the reader’s chest.

A third way that this book manages to convey the experience of mental disorder is in its total egocentricity and the isolation represented by egocentricity. Saying that a person suffering from mental illness is egocentric is not to criticize that person for being vain or selfish. It is simply to say that a deeply depressed person loses the capacity to think of anyone or anything else. This may explain why hypochondria often accompanies depression. Styron explains this phenomenon quite deftly by explaining that it is part of ‘‘the psyche’s apparatus of defense: unwilling to accept its own gathering deterioration, the mind announces to its indwelling consciousness that it is the body with its perhaps correctable defects—not the precious and irreplaceable mind—that is going haywire.’’ Thus a depressed person’s attention becomes consumed by the depressed person’s mental and physical health. Each symptom elicits either paralyzing fear because it is a symptom of mental illness or joyous welcome— no matter how serious—because it is an identifiable symptom of a physical illness.

Another element of this work that suggests the self-centered nature and therefore isolating nature of depression is the way in which secondary figures in the book appear as no more than one-dimensional caricatures. This book was written as a memoir, after the fact of Styron’s depressive episode. The reason none of the secondary people in the book achieve more than a cutout status is that Styron has no information about them on which to draw for his memoir. During his depression he was completely focused on himself. Thus Madame del Duca, who according to Styron plays a pivotal role in the story’s pivotal scene, never becomes a three-dimensional figure. Rather she is as flat as the Queen of Hearts in Alice’s Wonderland. Styron’s wife, Rose, whom he clearly loves, never achieves more than a marginal status. She is a disembodied voice that encourages him on his road to recovery and never an identifiable individual. Dr. Gold (one has to wonder if his made-up name was the result of Styron’s attempt to discredit him even more by tying him to the crazed alchemists) is a comic book figure. A casting director would wish to resurrect Groucho Marx complete with cigar to play the much-maligned psychiatrist. Styron was attended in the hospital by a Barbie doll art therapist and a Machiavellian group facilitator. The only human who emerges from this book as a complete character is Styron. Clearly he felt, during the worst periods of his depression, that no person in the world could provide relief from his torture. He was completely isolated in a dark world.

All this having been said about the way a certain degree of self-fixation is understandable in a depressed individual, Styron cannot be completely absolved of his egocentricity. Certainly he should be excused to a great extent because this is, after all, an autobiographical work. By definition a writer must be the hero in his or her autobiography. But here it must be reiterated that this is a memoir, written after Styron’s worst depression. Styron’s preoccupation with self that results from his condition often gives way to sheer egotism. This happens in much the same way it happens in Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues in which an unsuspecting narrator reveals quite unintentionally undesirable aspects of his or her own personality. Frequently, Styron draws attention away from his subject, depressive disorder, and onto himself. For example, when he relates the story of a piece he wrote for the New York Times concerning suicidal impulse and the unfairness of reproving posthumously those who commit suicide, he makes a sophomoric mistake: ‘‘It had taken, I speculated, no particular originality or boldness on my part to speak out frankly abou t su icide and the impu lse toward it. . . .’’ Young writers learn early on that essays need not contain references to the self. Writers should state their opinions without announcing that they are their opinions. Readers can understand for themselves that the opinions expressed in the essay are, in fact, the opinions of the essay’s author. To continually refer to the self as in ‘‘I believe’’ or ‘‘It is my opinion’’ is to pull attention away from the thought and place it upon the thinker.

In addition to constant and unnecessary references to himself, Styron reveals a great deal of egotism concerning his own accomplishments. He says in one paragraph (in which he used the pronoun ‘‘I’’ more than fifteen times) that

throughout much of my life I have been compelled . . . to become an autodidact in medicine, and have accumulated a better-than-average amateur’s knowledge about medical matters (to which many of my friends, surely unwisely, have often deferred) and so it came as an astonishment to me that I was close to a total ignoramus about depression.

As an isolated incident, a description of his own attainments in such straightforward terms would be seen as simple honesty. But once readers are subjected over and over to Styron’s special attainments, whether they are literary awards, exceptional knowledge, or famous acquaintances, readers become impatient with Styron’s constant waving of his own banner. His parenthetical mention that his friends may have deferred to his medical advice unwisely does not have the effect of downplaying his amateur medical knowledge or his intellectual attainment. It is a failed attempt to lower himself to the plain of the ordinary individual and it smacks of false modesty.

Despite this annoying egotism, Darkness Visible presents a fascinating vicarious journey through the spiraling depths of depression. Had Styron simply presented a case study of himself as a victim of uni-polar depression, the result would have been one more well meaning but ineffectual attempt to explain the vice grip of depression to those who have not been afflicted. What he ultimately produced was not a work of explanation but rather of inundation. Readers are enshrouded, much as victims of depression are, in the stark, lifeless existence of a person in the throes of a clinical depression. They are assaulted by the constant specter of Death in its most paradoxical form, suicide. Finally, they are aware of the isolation imposed upon the depressed person by his or her own mind—a mind that cannot feel beyond its own pain, see beyond its own suffering, or hope for freedom from its self-imposed prison.

Source: Karen D. Thompson, Critical Essay on Darkness Visible, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Thompson is a freelance writer who writes primarily in the education field.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2387

When an individual suffers the honors of Auschwitz, survives to write inspiringly about man’s ability to endure in extreme circumstances, but years later takes his own life over what many would deem no more than the ordinary unhappiness of the human condition, the event seems bound to become at the very least a source of sorrowful wonder. Such was the death of the Italian Jewish writer Primo Levi in 1987, and such was the mixture of shock, dismay, disappointment, puzzlement, and confusion expressed by admiring writers and critics at a conference held some months after his suicide.

But the response of the American novelist William Styron was quite different. When he read a report in the New York Times on the Levi conference. Styron was offended to learn that the participants seemed to feel that

this man whom they had all so greatly admired, and who had endured so much at the hands of the Nazis— a man of exemplary resilience and courage—had by his suicide demonstrated a frailty, a crumbling of character they were loath to accept. In the face of a terrible absolute—self-destruction—their reaction was helplessness and (the reader could not avoid it) a touch of shame.

Styron countered this ‘‘touch of shame’’ by writing an op-ed article for the Times setting out an argument that is further substantiated in his latest, very slim, book, in which he also tells of his own battle with severe depression and suicidal behavior. ‘‘The argument I put forth was fairly straightforward,’’ Styron now writes of his op-ed piece:

The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain. Through the healing process of time—and through medical intervention or hospitalization in many cases—most people survive depression, which may be its only blessing; but to the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer.

Styron has made something of an avocation out of promulgating this view of depression-as-disease, and he sees his new book, combined with lectures and television appearances, as an effort both to help others similarly troubled and to help change social attitudes. But of course the ‘‘disease model’’ is nothing new in today’s discourse; in fact, it has become the major means of characterizing numerous problems, like drug addiction and alcoholism, that were once seen as lapses in character or morality. So far from being new revelations, such characterizations may be passing their prime of acceptance; facing Kitty Dukakis’s recent tell-all Now You Know, even a New York Times reviewer could write with a trace of weary condescension that ‘‘the sins and nasty habits of old are now labeled diseases . . . beyond the control of [their] victims. The idea of taking the moral blame and responsibility for failings has become passé.’’ On the other hand, the fact that Styron’s book has rocketed to the very top of the bestseller list seems to indicate that the disease model is still very much alive and well.

Behind the disease model, and behind the reverse moral righteousness of its purveyors, is a presumption that this approach lessens suffering, helps effect cures more readily, and alleviates the burden of inner worthlessness borne by depressives and others with similar disorders. But is it really such a liberation to adopt this model? Is it truly more helpful? Styron’s own book offers plenty of grounds for doubt.

Take, to begin with, the book’s tone. Signifi- cantly, Styron says that at one time he attempted to write a novel about his ordeal, but ‘‘the work ended up feeling artificial, and I abandoned it.’’ The reader of Darkness Visible can easily see why. A lot of the time, Styron sounds like a second-rate Poe or Coleridge as he attempts, sensationalistically, melodramatically, to conjure up the horrors he experienced: ‘‘Doubtless depression had hovered near me for years, waiting to swoop down. Now I was in the first stage—premonitory, like a flicker of sheet lightning barely perceived—of depression’s black tempest.’’ Or: ‘‘Then, after dinner, sitting in the living room, I experienced a curious inner convulsion that I can describe only as despair beyond despair.’’ Although Styron regrets the ‘‘indescribability’’ of depression, he seems actually to be relying for effect on the awe and sympathy that can accompany ‘‘the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience.’’ As with the Dukakis book and other celebrity tell-alls, one begins to feel uncomfortably that by writing about the experience the author is satisfying the very craving for attention and pity that was part of the problem to begin with.

But what about the physical elements which to a great extent form the basis of the disease model? Styron reports: ‘‘It has been established with reasonable certainty’’ that depression ‘‘results from an aberrant biochemical process’’ in the brain, a complex chain reaction among neurotransmitters, chemicals, and hormones. But this does not stop him from pronouncing as well that ‘‘the disease of depression remains a great mystery,’’ on that ‘‘strident factionalism . . . exists in present-day psychiatry—the schism between the believers in psychotherapy and the adherents of pharmacology.’’ It has not stopped him from disbelieving in the efficacy of either psychiatric school in advanced cases. And it has not stopped him from conjecturing inconclusively about a host of other factors as possible components of his own trouble—from turning sixty, to childhood loss, to alcoholic withdrawal, to tranquilizer overdose, to dissatisfaction with his work.

No more, one might add, has it stopped the proliferation of theories about the etiology of depression in the medical profession, where heredity, temperament, childhood deprivations, and life experiences in addition to hormonal imbalance are all invoked a contributors to the disease. With such a combination of elements, it seems that we know everything and nothing. In other words, to say the cause is physical seems ultimately to be saying very little. Styron’s own greatest hope lies in the passage of time and ‘‘the passing of the storm. . . . Mysterious in its coming, mysterious in its going, the affliction runs its course, and one finds peace.’’ But the course of Styron’s own emergence from depression and suicidal behavior makes us wonder, not only at this characterization of time as the main healer, but at his confident insistence that to understand and deal with depression, we must abandon the moral dimension. Two key scenes stand out in the drama of his recovery.

The columnist Art Buchwald was a close friend who kept in contact with Styron during his trouble. Among the ways Buchwald helped was in continually ‘‘admonishing me that suicide was unacceptable.’’ Now, ‘‘unacceptable’’ may not be quite the equivalent of the ‘‘Everlasting’’ having ‘‘fixed his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter’’ (Hamlet), but it’s something. Thus, Styron’s own resistance to suicide may have been strengthened by the very sort of moral consideration—however attenuated in the word ‘‘unacceptable’’—he takes pains to decry in his book. Suppose Buchwald had counseled him—as Styron would have us all be counseled— that, given the situation, suicide was entirely understandable?

At another moment, at the very crisis of his ordeal, actually on the verge of suicide, Styron hears the Brahms Alto Rhapsody. The sound ‘‘pierced my heart like a dagger,’’ he writes in one of the book’s few animated passages,

and in a flood of swift recollection I thought of all the joys the house had known: the children who had rushed through its rooms, the festivals, the love and work, the honestly earned slumber, the voices and the nimble commotion, the perennial tribe of cats and dogs and birds. . . . All this I realized was more than I could ever abandon, even as what I had set out so deliberately to do was more than I could inflict on those memories, and upon those, so close to me, with whom the memories were bound. And just as powerfully I realized I could not commit this desecration on myself. I drew upon some last gleam of sanity to perceive the terrifying dimensions of the mortal predicament I had fallen into.

What was happening here? Did not this flow of thoughts and impressions bring Styron to a choice in favor of life over death? What, then, at this point, were all his neurotransmitters and chemicals and hormones up to? Did those merciless gods turn their heads at the fatal moment? Clearly what happened was that Styron’s self-absorption was suddenly broken, permitting the entrance of healing thoughts, and, importantly, of concern for others. Similarly, Buchwald, himself a recovering depressive, had reported that helping Styron was ‘‘a continuing therapy for him,’’ but from this Styron draws entirely the wrong lesson—that ‘‘the disease engenders lasting fellowship.’’ What helped Buchwald was getting out of himself, feeling the blessedness of being useful to another. This release from self is the process at work in Tolstoy’s Levin in Anna Karenina, who loses his morbid preoccupations when a peasant tells him that he must not live for himself but for God, or in a woman I know whose long depression was lifted when she heeded the admonition of an aunt to think of her children instead of herself.

Thinking in terms of choice, responsibility, or even ‘‘sin’’ is not a means of self-condemnation, which is after all another sin, but of liberation and redemption. Though the idea of sinfulness seems to make people furious nowadays—we are supposed to be wonderful in all points—really sin is simply a way of describing the essential flawedness of human nature and the human condition, reparable by recourse to the transcendent, or by opening oneself to an order of experience larger than the self. Thousands of years ago the Psalmist sang of this experience, while also incidentally evincing an awareness of the very physical symptoms of depression Styron writes about:

. . . When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. / For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. / I acknowledged my sin unto Thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin . . . / Many sorrows shall be to the wicked: but he that trusteth in the Lord, mercy shall compass him about. / Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, ye righteous: and shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart.

Another basis for the disease model—not invoked by Styron—may be Alcoholics Anonymous, but the AA program shows a deep understanding of the human character that much current discourse does not. It is true that AA calls alcoholism a disease—the term has been applied as well to the many other disorders, including depression, treated through the AA twelve-step program—but it does so mainly for the purposes of relieving the alcoholic of useless self-condemnation, of any tendency to blame others for his drinking, or of the temptation to spend fruitless energy searching for the cause. It is not meant to relieve him of responsibility for his plight. Once the ‘‘disease’’ has been acknowledged, the individual then embarks on a program of recovery in which he must ‘‘take his inventory,’’ or, as it would have been called in another age, examine his conscience, a process that can be demanding enough to satisfy a puritan saint. The individual must also make amends for past behavior that has been hurtful to others. Behind all this is the notion that faulty moral and characterological habits do indeed lead to the confusions and messes that can make a person escape into drink or drugs or depression.

Another apparently neglected aspect of these programs is the requirement of anonymity. It may be thought that this requirement was originally designed to protect the alcoholic from the glare of a disapproving society, and that now, in our radically altered social climate, it is no longer necessary. But there is yet another important reason for anonymity, and that is the need for humility, something severely compromised when one draws widescale attention to one’s problems. The celebrity revolving-doorclinic, book-tour, and media-appearance approach seems to show little awareness of these aspects of the twelve-step program, concentrating exclusively on the disease concept which, by itself, can be efficacious only to a limited point.

It is really quite amazing how Styron manages to protect himself from any awareness along these lines. To describe his depression he boldly uses the famous opening stanza of the Inferno (‘‘In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself in a dark wood, / For I had lost the right path’’) and closes his book with the hopeful closing line of that same canticle (‘‘And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars’’) while studiously managing to ignore completely what comes in between.

The ‘‘sullen,’’ as they are called in John Ciardi’s translation of the Inferno, are Dante’s version of the depressive, and they float beneath the surface of a muddy ditch in one of the upper circles of hell, gurgling: ‘‘Sullen were we in the air made sweet by the Sun; / in the glory of his shining our hearts poured / a bitter smoke.’’ At a much lower circle Dante comes upon the wood of the suicides. There he experiences deep compassion with the poignant plight of Pier delle Vigne, and is overcome by emotion (as often happens when he is more in sympathy with the sinner than with divine justice). But ultimately Dante will not revoke the moral law which represents his own salvation and the salvation of all, and which he knows is intricately connected to the sufferings men endure and inflict. After this knowledge, there is forgiveness.

Before we heed the prophets who try to comfort us with assurances that our fate is entirely out of our hands, we should at least become aware of the alternatives.

Source: Carol Iannone, ‘‘Depression-as-Disease,’’ in Commentary, Vol. 90, No. 5, November 1990, pp. 54–57.


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