Memoirs of Trauma

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Karl Miller (review date 21 March 1991)

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SOURCE: "Literary Supplements," in London Review of Books, March 21, 1991, pp. 6-7.

[In the following excerpt, Miller discusses William Styron's memoir, Darkness Visible, finding that it makes clear many truths of the author that have been alluded to in his novels. Miller remarks: "His novels, with their stress on suicide and gloom, could be said to find their afterword in the memoir."]

The American novelist William Styron has written a short book which describes how he came to grief at around the age of sixty, falling into a depression which nearly cost him his life. He felt, in romantic-confessional style, that he had to write it, and it is good to have it. I hope that it is not a disorder of the liberal conscience to suppose that the voices of those who have been through spells or seasons of mental trouble can now, with or without the sponsorship of romance, be heard with respect if they choose to write down what happened to them. Styron's account has several interesting features. His father had suffered from the same illness, and he lost his mother when he was 13. Throughout his life he had been dependent on alcohol, to which he here pays startling tribute: 'I did use it—often in conjunction with music—as a means to let my mind conceive visions that the unaltered, sober brain has no access to. Alcohol was an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I sought daily—sought also, I now see, as a means to calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long somewhere in the dungeons of my spirit.' Then quite suddenly he took a dislike to drink, and this threw him into a downward spiral, which was to be violently assisted by a psychiatrist's overprescription of the drug Halcion. Worries about his work—worries to which it is courageous of him to refer—made things worse, or were there at the start of his depression: part of the trouble could be termed writer's block writ hideously large. Last, but perhaps not least, he was brought round by being removed from his domestic surroundings, and from that lavish psychiatrist of his, and being placed in the seclusion of a hospital. Electroconvulsive therapy may have been mooted, but was avoided.

Darkness Visible has many vivid moments (one of which is Milton's). Two depressive onsets in particular lodge in the mind. On one occasion he is being awarded a prize in Paris. The ceremony is over, and he is counted on for lunch with the prize-giver's queenly widow and members of the Académie Française, at which point he tells this woman that he has to have lunch with his publisher. 'Alors!' exclaims the queen as she turns her back on the author of Lie Down in Darkness: 'Au revoir!' This yields the black humour of certain depressive illnesses, whose lightnings have a tendency to strike at literary parties. On another occasion he was seized with dread in a place where he had always felt at home: 'One bright day on a walk through the woods with my dog I heard a flock of Canada geese honking high above trees ablaze with foliage; ordinarily a sight and sound that would have exhilarated me, the flight of birds caused me to stop, riveted with fear….'

There are passages in the book which might have been written in the 19th century—some of them, give or take a word or two, by Poe: 'It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing...

(This entire section contains 901 words.)

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to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this cauldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.' Styron write of the 'dungeons' of his 'spirit', of a 'long-beshrouded metaphysical truth'—language that belongs to the Gothic strain of certain of his fictions. To make remarks about the sometimes laboured and allusive style of the book feels like complaining in some pursed way of the 'more's' and the 'lessnesses' in the desolation-commemorating passage: 'I had suffered more and more from a general feeling of worthlessness as the malady had progressed. My dank joy-lessness was therefore all the more ironic because….' But to do so can hardly be beside the point; the book runs the risk of such objections, in the course of producing a style for the malady it recalls. This is a highly literary text, which is charged with references to other people's literary texts. The very name of his treacherous drug, Halcion, takes effect as an ironic allusion to the literary past. His novels, with their stress on suicide and gloom, could be said to find their afterword in the memoir, and the memoir abounds with references to other writers who suffered as he did—suicides and possible suicides, some of them his friends. Poe's pit and pendulum, Wordsworth's despondencies and madness, those enemies of promise, have shown up in Maine and Connecticut, as the lineaments of a present pain. Who would want to say that Styron is wearing a literary hat or a romantic mask, and who says they don't have dungeons in America any more?


World Literature Today (review date Summer 1991)