Perhaps the most striking aspect of the descent into despair in William Styron’s Darkness Visible is the inexpressibility of suffering involved in depression. He writes, ‘Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.’ This ‘veritable howling tempest in the brain’ resists all the art so powerful a writer can throw at it. This might be why so many approach mental illness through art and poetry. Indeed, Styron’s very title is from Milton,
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d
Paradise Lost Bk I
So distant from the literal, allusion is all that is left, and the more severe his ‘melancholia’ the more poetic Styron’s prose becomes. The first quotation is one I used in my review of Jonathan Lee’s JOY and it was a strange experience reading Styron and then Lee. Both examine from quite different perspectives what Styron calls ‘the stigma of self-inflicted death’ and the resistance to reduction of suicide to any one explanation. It would be hard to argue that any character in JOY suffers from the kind of illness Styron was struck by, but suffering and self-destruction and unfathomable loss are shared concerns.
My wife researches the philosophy of psychiatry and she tells me that one thing that comes up again and again in accounts of depression is the sufferer’s loss of a sense of the world as constituting an arena for them to act in. Objects lose the penumbra of possibilities which normally surround them in our perception. So a cup, for example, is no longer perceived as an object we might manipulate, drink from, throw against a wall, and so on. Styron writes of this loss of the sense of oneself and one’s relation to the world,
I had now reached that phase of the disorder where all sense of hope had vanished, along with the idea of a futurity; my brain, in thrall to its outlaw hormones, had become less an organ of thought than an instrument registering, minute by minute, varying degrees of its own suffering.
Styron’s writing is direct and intimate whilst being flowing and capacious. Such clarity of expression serves to emphasise the resistance of the condition to articulation. However, whilst the essence of the experience eludes him, Styron captures the rhythms of his experiences, the descent, the paralysis, and the utter loss of faith in deliverance which can result in the altered consciousness which admits suicide as a real possibility. However, such experiences can be endured, and Styron does endure them, finding time on the way to be rather scathing about both therapy and pharmacology: a debate that continues up to the present moment. Of his own Freudian approach to his illness we might be sceptical, but, as Wittgenstein noted, perhaps what is more important from a therapeutic point of view is not some strict and accurate causal account of mental illness, but a narrative that the sufferer can identify with, own, and integrate into their understanding of their situation, thus reintegrating the fragmented and distraught collection of mental shards they have become.
That depression is misunderstood, indeed cannot be understood; and that it is conquerable – or at least controllable – is the core of Styron’s message in Darkness Visible. This book should be read by everybody.
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