“Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” by William Styron

BOOK REVIEW: Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron (1990). The full-text is available on the Internet Archive.

"Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness" by William Styron (1990).

“Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” by William Styron (1990).

Suffering from depression and dwelling upon old memories of Paris, the author William Styron recalls a startling conclusion he had: “I would never see Paris again.” Never again would he see the land Camus who, he notes, once wrote that the must fundamental question of philosophy is whether life is worth living.

This certitude astonished me and filled me with a new fright, for while thoughts of death had long been common during my siege, blowing through my mind like icy gusts of wind, they were the formless shapes of doom that I suppose are dreamed by people in the grip of any severe affliction. (28)

Soon he would need to answer Camus’ question. How he did so is detailed in his short book Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990), an extension of a 1989 essay he wrote for Vanity Fair. Perhaps best-known for his novel Sophie’s ChoiceDarkness Visible is more than an account of his descent and eventual recovery: it’s a beautifully-written meditation on how we engage and respond to mental illness as not only the victim but as a community. While disappointed in the stigma associated with it, Styron understands that “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” (83). He can hold the reader’s hand but there are some places he cannot go – not by choice but because language fails us.

Styron’s descent begins with an aversion to alcohol that makes him anxious and submits him to a despair that “comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room” (50). What follows is the loss of self-esteem and his own self-reliance, comparing himself to a

four and a half [year old] tagging through a market after my long-suffering wife; not for an instant could I let out of my sight the endlessly patient soul who had become nanny, mommy, comforter, priestess, and, most important, confidante … (57)

As things grow worse he becomes tired of the platitudes of psychiatrists and “[t]he failure of these pills to act positively and quickly” (55). Everything he is told begins to feel like empty promises and so he writes, “There is a region in the experience of pain where the certainty of alleviation permits superhuman endurance” (61). Lacking it, he feels he has no other options.

Having already planned to destroy his private diary on his way to the nursing home, he realizes now that day will never come so he disposes of it feeling his “heart pounding wildly, like that of a man facing a firing squad, and [I] knew I had made an irreversible decision” (64). It’s only when he’s standing on the edge that everything changes. After his wife has already gone to bed, Styron puts in a movie where off-screen there is “a sudden soaring passage from the Brahms Alto Rhapsody“:

This sound, which like all music – indeed, like all pleasure – I had been numbly unresponsive to for months, pierced my heart like a dagger, 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 … (66)

Rushing to wake up his wife to tell her of his revelation, the next day he is admitted to the hospital. Appallingly, in the early stages of his treatment, his psychiatrist had advised him against this “owing to the stigma I might suffer” (68). Rightfully upset, he discusses his rehabilitation and chastises a system that, nearly thirty years later, hasn’t changed – and Styron was writing before major antidepressants like Prozac made it onto the market.

Many psychiatrists, who simply do not seem to be able to comprehend the nature and depth of the anguish their patients are undergoing, maintain their stubborn allegiance to pharmaceuticals in the belief that eventually the pills will kick in, the patient will respond, and the somber surroundings of the hospital will be avoided. (68)

This may work for some, he acknowledges, but had it not been for one brief, lucid moment this memoir would have not been written. Styron was one of the lucky ones, which he makes poignant by naming those who weren’t: Albert Camus, Romain Gary, Abbie Hoffman, and a handful of others. This is to say nothing of the thousands who live and die without even a line on Wikipedia.

Pulling from psychology, history, and his own experiences, Styron’s concise and elegant prose makes Darkness Visible a fine little book for anyone who’s ever asked, “How could somebody commit suicide?” To many it’s incomprehensible, but as Styron explains it relies upon a logic foreign to our frame-of-reference. This is his attempt to explain the suicidal logic, the language, the way of seeing the world that taints everything we are taught to revere: a beautiful day, a loving family, human life. It’s an impossible endeavor, but in publishing an intimate account of an uncomfortable subject one gets the impression that he is speaking past you and I – the curious reader – and to those, like him, who have approached the edge. His message to victims is the same Dante had rising from his melancholy, ascending at last from the depths of hell: “And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.”

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