Darkness Visible by William Styron

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Title: Darkness Visible
Author: William Styron
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir
Publisher: Open Road, 2010
Source: NetGalley

Sorry about the ugly Amazon image.
For some reason I was having difficulties getting a good image for this book cover. And also, I am lazy.
EDIT**: The lovely people at Open Road sent me their cover. It is more aesthetically pleasing, yes?

Anyway, Darkness Visible is a glimpse into acclaimed author William Styron's (Sophie's Choice; Confessions of Nat Turner) dark struggle with clinical depression. A slim volume of only 84 pages, the book is nevertheless packed with vivid imagery and insight into the depressed mind.

Styron begins his chronicle of his experience with the disease in Paris, where he is receiving a literary prize, the Prix Mondial Cino del Duca. Despite the great honor and large monetary prize, all Styron can think of is his desire to get home and see a psychiatrist. His oppressing feelings lead him to commit
some social faux pas and misplace his (hefty) prize check. This incident opens the door for Styron's meditations on his mental illness, including a strong attempt to convey what a depressed person feels, his speculations on the causes for himself personally, thoughts on suicide, and how loved ones can help.

The most impressive parts of the book were, for me, the vivid descriptions of Styron's moods and feelings. In general, we deal with the outside of a depressed person, unless we ourselves are depressed. We deal with the irritability, the lack of desire to participate in daily life, the melancholy. I think at times this leads to impatience on the part of those who are not depressed. Styron's conveyance of his painful emotions inspired strong sympathy and a better understanding of the state of mind of a depressed person. Here are just a few of his poignant images: "a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world;" "a sensation close to, but indescribably different from, actual pain;" "this leaden and poisonous mood the color of verdigris;" a veritable howling tempest in the brain;" "a sto
rm of murk;" "one's bed of nails, attached [...] wherever one goes." These dark images drove the Styron's emotions into my mind. The most powerful excerpt, to me, was this -
I did notice that my surroundings took on a different tone at certain times: the shadows of nightfall seemed more somber, my mornings were less buoyant, walks in the woods became less zestful, and there was a moment during my working hours in the late afternoon when a kind of panic and anxiety overtook me, just for a few minutes, accompanied by a visceral queasiness - such a seizure was at least slightly alarming, after all.
I think these images are powerful and probably applicable to many who suffer from depression. One aspect that probably is not the same for other clinical depression sufferers are some of Styron's hypothesized causes for his depression, including a decreased tolerance for alcohol, which he describe
s as "a soothing, often sublime agent, which had contributed greatly to my writing." Styron also cites his father's own depression and the loss of his mother at a young age as potential reasons for his own experience. While these are all certainly potential causes, one must bear in mind that Styron does not use evidence to support these hypotheses and they cannot therefore be viewed as scientific. I don't think this is Styron's intent; however, I could picture readers applying his statements to themselves, which may not be valid.

Styron also presents some interesting ideas on suicide, giving a long list of authors and artists who committed suicide due to depression. The idea of creative and artistic people being susceptible has always been of particular interest to me so I found this section intriguing, although slightly disheartening, because no one wants to think that genius predisposes to
ward suicide.

Despite the dark subject matter of the book, Styron ends it with a message of hope, comparing the progress of depression to Dante's journey in The Divine Comedy - while he descended through a labyrinth of despair, hell itself, he emerged and "beheld the stars." Styron writes that the best thing one can do for a depressed loved one is to remind them that the disease will run its course - it will eventually come to an end.
One need not sound the false or inspirational note to stress the truth that depression is not the soul's annihilation; men and women who have recovered from the disease - and they are countless - bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable.
Darkness Visible is a powerful and aesthetic survey of depression in one man's life. Its slim size makes it an a
ccessible and quick read, but its message reverberates after the story is finished. I actually put off writing this review for several days because I wanted to think about the story and let it set in for a while before I wrote a review. Whether or not you yourself are a victim of depression's iron grip, this brief memoir paints a compassionate portrait and inspires thought.

4 stars

Neuroscience Notes: This book is mainly a psychological description of depression rather than a scientific description. However, Styron does an excellent job of describing artistically the symptoms of depression and gives a compassionate window into the emotions of a depressed person. He also spends a bit of time describing the dichotomy between pharmacology and psychotherapy.

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