Darkness Visible – William Styron

Dante’s Dark Wood

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.

Buy Darkness Visible

Amazon: Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (Vintage classics)

Or at your local bookshop!

JOY – Jonathan Lee (William Heinemann 2012)

Jonathan Lee’s JOY is a shifty novel. The best novels are. The narrative swirls around the fall of Joy Stephens from a second floor platform to the marble floor of her City law firm. Four people converge on her broken form and, in the relative safety of a counsellor’s borrowed office, begin to converge on Joy in quite a different way, struggling to understand the rationale of apparent self-destruction. Each grasps a small part of her, understanding some aspect of a more complex whole, before being whisked away by contours of thought and preoccupation. Lee occupies each voice near flawlessly: the academic husband, the handsome, obnoxious lawyer, the OCD personal trainer, and the aged and resentful PA. Particularly wonderful are the digressive footnotes of the English lecturer Dennis, forever qualifying statements in a manner I find uncomfortably familiar. The dissembling lawyer’s lewd desperation to impress and seduce recalls the dialogue of Edward St. Aubyn’s fractured individuals; and like St. Aubyn Lee manages to render this desperation amusing and absurd in equal measure. The threat of caricature looms large, but this is slowly stripped away as Lee shifts their speech from public to intimate.

Only Joy is permitted an interior monologue, and it is her embodied experience which allows Lee’s lyricism free rein. Throughout her language of thought is intensely sensual as Lee delves beneath the superficiality of her working and married life, contrasting this with the sexual language of those who move and speak around and of her. Sensual and sexual are not the same thing, of course, and this contrast serves to highlight one of the central themes of the novel: the disconnection between speech and thought; or, better, the apparent gulf between how we feel or intuit ourselves to be and the person others get to see – and judge. In the case of mental distress this is particularly clear: as William Styron writes in his memoir of depression Darkness Visible, ‘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.’ Lee reclaims such distress for the everyday, situating it in an office whose shallow preoccupations threaten to implode.

Such imaginative sympathy is the prerogative of the novelist, for each character is bounded by their own concerns, each, to steal a phrase from JOY itself, recreating people and events according to their own private ambition.  The contingency of perception on preoccupation and its coupling with the distortions of memory and motive contributes to narratives of persons and events we rarely question except in extremis. That everyday life can deliver such prompting extremity is masterfully argued here. In a forthcoming book which might be marketed as a companion to Joy the late Peter Goldie considers the ways in which people understand their past and the nature of grief and self-forgiveness. At the heart of Goldie’s account is a narrative sense of self whose instability is evidenced by Lee as each character returns to the counsellor’s office and slowly sheds their simplicity.

That grief and its ideal corollary self-forgiveness are the axis around which this novel turns is not immediately obvious, at least not in the way one might expect, but then Lee constantly surprises the reader. With great control he moves us through the day preceding Joy’s fall and through each person’s recollections of it. A vortex forms around her, as each tries to understand their role in her life – and her role in theirs. The final act is affecting and unexpected as self-narratives break down; their acts finally, perhaps, matching their thoughts. In the central passage on Hampstead Heath and throughout in certain elements of the whole book it is hard not to see an echo (or perhaps more) of Keat’s Ode to a Nightingale, ‘the weariness, the fever, and the fret’. Indeed, it is here that Lee’s writing is at its strongest: ‘Something deep and dreamy about this realm of woodland. Trees bunched like troubles. They crowd around unexplained clearings in which only earth seems to grow – within itself, swelling against its own skin.’

There are times when JOY threatens to buckle under the weight of its varied voices and their revelations and misunderstandings. Yet it never does, and that tension serves to underline its emergent humanity. This is a generous and intensely human novel which achieves a great lyrical intensity in its exploration of the depth of our ignorance of ourselves and others, the sheer contingency of life where everything is visible but nothing seen, and where two contradictory statements can be equally true of the same person.  Goldie’s book is titled The Mess Inside. It is hard to think of a better summation of Lee’s project in JOY. In the collapse of his characters’ narratives Lee has constructed a stunning one of his own.

Buy JOY 

Amazon: Joy

Or from your local bookshop!